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Panel issues guidelines to streamline death penalty

A state Supreme Court committee on Tuesday recommended guidelines that could speed up executions in Florida, but one member of the committee criticized the proposals as potentially unfair. The report was prompted by the long delays in carrying out death sentences in Florida. In recent years the problems have worsened, largely because of the enormous caseloads for lawyers who defend condemned Florida inmates.

The recommendations were requested by Chief Justice Leander Shaw in an effort to reduce the delays.

"The public has never understood why it takes so long to get a case through the system," Shaw said Tuesday. "Lately, those of us in legal circles (also) have begun to question why it takes so long."

In response, the committee, chaired by Justice Ben F. Overton, has recommended more volunteer lawyers to relieve the burden on state defense lawyers.

Under the recommendations, the governor's office also would help relieve caseloads by withholding death warrants until the crucial second round of appeals is over. In return, the courts and defense lawyers would agree to make efforts to abide by new timetables.

The recommendations could reduce the average delay in carrying out a death sentence from eight years to about six or fewer, officials have said. There is no guarantee that judges and lawyers would abide by the timetables, however.

The recommendations are designed in part to solve the problem created by signing of multiple death warrants. Court officials agree that the current warrant system creates needless last-minute scrambles that unnecessarily burden state defense lawyers.

Former Gov. Bob Martinez signed an average of 39 warrants a year during his last three years in office. By contrast, the state legal office that handles death appeals for inmates was set up to take about 12 to 15 cases a year. As a result, the state lawyers have been forced to ask for numerous delays.

In his dissenting report, Florida State University law Professor Steven Goldstein said he thinks the proposed timetables are potentially unfair.

"My own view is that the committee's presumptive judicial timetables are unnecessary, unreasonable and significantly underestimate the difficulty of generalizing how "quickly' post-conviction review proceedings should be completed," Goldstein wrote.

If the guidelines are rigidly applied, he said, "they are likely to impact on the willingness of volunteer counsel to undertake representation and also raise the possibility that the process employed to resolve post-conviction claims may not be fair."