TALLAHASSEE - Lawyers, current and retired judges and a former death row inmate Wednesday criticized Florida for ignoring suggestions on how to fix its death penalty procedures.
An American Bar Association team made the recommendations three years ago. A forum at Florida State University was designed in part to "brush off any dust," said Sandy D'Alemberte, the school's president emeritus and a former ABA president.
"There has just been a lack of political will, both executive and legislative," D'Alemberte said. "I hope at some point people will understand this is such an expensive system we're running and it's one that's been extremely ineffective."
D'Alemberte said the forum's purpose was not to advocate abolishing the death penalty but to push for changes in a system that one judge called "a morass."
Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who focuses on death penalty issues and chairs a committee that oversees court and prison system spending, said the Legislature has looked at the recommendations and decided most weren't needed.
"To say that we have a dysfunctional death penalty system is false and misleading," Crist said. "Florida is at the forefront of anywhere in the world that has decided to keep the death sentence."
Some key recommendations are for unanimous jury votes to recommend the death penalty, improved jury instructions, uniform criteria to help prosecutors decide what cases should merit a request for death and better legal representation for appeals.
Twenty-two inmates have been released from Florida's death row, more than any other state, because courts or a governor have determined they had been wrongly convicted. They include Juan Melendez, who was freed in 2002 after spending 17 years on death row.
"You can always release an innocent man from prison," Melendez said in an interview. "But you can never, and I repeat, you can never release an innocent man from the grave."
Crist, though, said he believes the high number of releases proves Florida's system does prevent innocent people from being executed.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper of Dade City said she was afraid federal courts may begin overturning some death sentences because Florida is the only state that lets juries recommend death and agree on aggravating circumstances to justify that sentence, both by less than a unanimous vote.
"One of these days Florida is going to find itself in trouble," said Tepper, who participated in the forum by phone.
The Florida Supreme Court in 2005 also urged the Legislature to require unanimous jury recommendations in an opinion on one of Tepper's cases.
Crist did agree with the critics on one issue - the state should restore a legal office that represented death row inmates in northern Florida for their appeals.
At the urging of former Gov. Jeb Bush, the Legislature abolished that office and set up a system of private lawyers as an experiment in privatization but kept two others going in central and South Florida.
Judges have complained the private lawyers have not been up to par. Crist said he's worried about losing the confidence of the courts and has sponsored bills for the past three years to restore the northern office. They have passed in the Senate but haven't been taken up in the House.
House Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council Chairman William Snyder, R-Stuart, said he was unfamiliar with ABA recommendations. Snyder noted he's been in the Legislature three years and no one's ever come to see him about them.