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Martinez lobbies for speedy death-penalty appeals

With his campaign camera rolling, Florida Gov. Bob Martinez told a U.S. Senate committee that he supports legislation to "restore finality" to the death penalty by limiting the time-consuming appeals inmates may file. Martinez called the appeals "delay tactics" that thwart the public's desire to see the death penalty carried out. He noted that 40 people a year are sentenced to death in Florida, but "we average only two executions per year."

"Never before has the saying "justice delayed is justice denied' been so true as it is today in capital cases," Martinez told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

Martinez endorsed legislation that would require defendants to file appeals in federal court within six months after all their appeals in state court have been exhausted. That legislation is designed to lower the number of last-ditch appeals inmates file after a death warrant is signed.

The legislation Martinez supports has been filed by a fellow Republican, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. It was Thurmond who proposed that the governor testify, and it was Thurmond who asked Martinez a series of friendly questions about the state's death penalty, which is popular with voters.

As it happens, Thurmond and Martinez have another thing in common: They share the same television consulting firm, National Media. The firm went to Thurmond's office Tuesday to seek permission to film the hearing. Approval was granted by the staff for the committee's Democratic majority, a spokesman for Thurmond said.

Thurmond spokesman Bill Outlaw said the senator did not coordinate his exchange with Martinez for use in the governor's campaign footage. Nor did the Martinez campaign plan the trip to Washington, according to Martinez political adviser J. M. "Mac" Stipanovich. He said he assumed the trip was financed by taxpayers.

"We film him up there all the time," Stipanovich said of the Washington trip.

Martinez, who faces a tough re-election fight this year, is expected to use his record on crime as a theme in his campaign. His campaign adviser said he has not decided whether to use Wednesday's testimony in campaign commercials.

The hearing focused on habeas corpus appeals, which death-row inmates are using with increasing frequency in attempts to avoid execution. In 1987, federal courts received 9,524 habeas corpus appeals, which call for the state to justify an inmate's imprisonment.

Congress is considering a number of competing proposals to limit the time-consuming appeals, and Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said he expects the full Senate to begin debating the bills later this year.

Steve Bright, a lawyer for the Southern Prisoners' Defense Committee, was one of several witnesses who told the committee that Congress needs to improve the quality of lawyers representing inmates under death sentence.

"These are poor people who have no control over their lawyers," said Bright, who told the committee of case after case involving defendants represented by incompetent lawyers.

Biden, the committee chairman, has filed a bill that encourages states to provide lawyers with at least five years' experience to defend inmates in death-penalty cases. The Biden bill offers an enticement: States that choose to provide experienced lawyers could then be permitted to limit the appellate process.

Martinez, however, went out of his way to criticize the Biden proposal as too expensive. He also suggested that the requirements might delay executions by creating new issues for inmates to file appeals on.

The state of Florida has an office that provides defense lawyers for appeals in capital cases. However, they are not required to meet the standards Biden proposes.

Under pointed questioning from Biden, Martinez said he probably would not choose to provide the experienced lawyers if Biden's bill were enacted. That, in turn, would mean Florida would not qualify for the appeal limits provided in the bill.

Later in the hearing, Thurmond read a series of questions to Martinez. He asked, for instance, why it took 10 years to bring serial killer Ted Bundy to the electric chair last year and how much it cost.

The governor recounted Bundy's numerous appeals. "As you can see there are just all kinds of ways to stay active and alive . . ." Martinez said, adding: "It cost the state $6-million."

Martinez concluded: "It's time to take it (justice) back to the people by providing a speedy way to carry out the sentence in . . . capital cases."

"Justice delayed is justice denied," Thurmond said, repeating the phrase Martinez had used earlier.

"That's correct," Martinez said.