Lawmakers Looking To Streamline Florida's Death Penalty Process

Mar 6, 2013

Florida is one of the top states in the nation with the most number of people facing the death penalty—Close to half of which have been on death row for at least 20 years. And, a group of lawmakers is now trying to streamline the death penalty process through a couple of measures, but it’s facing much opposition.

Today, there are about 400 people on death row in Florida. That’s more than any other state aside from California. On average, it’s estimated that Florida death row inmates spend about 13 years on death row prior to execution, and Republican Representative Matt Gaetz says something has to be done.

“Our focus was on streamlining the process so that we didn’t have these cases lingering for 14, 15, 25 years,” said Gaetz.

Gaetz as the chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee is spearheading an effort to streamline the death penalty process in Florida. Gaetz says it’s the lengthy appeals process that is contributing to delays in executions. So, through a proposed constitutional amendment, he hopes to only allow lawmakers to have rulemaking authority over the post-conviction appeals process, rather than courts.

He also has another proposal that outlines steps on how the Legislature should go about cutting down on the lengthy appeal process. That includes a provision that he hopes will stop “insincere” appeals from lawyers who say they were ineffective as counsel.

“But, then that lawyer is able walk into the very next room and pick up the next file go represent the next person who has their life on the line. I think that’s just rather silly,” Gaetz added.

“A lawyer claiming they’ve been ineffective as counsel” is a type of appeal a death row inmate is allowed to provide throughout the appeals process, and one that some prosecutors say lengthens the process due to frivolous claims because the death row inmate now needs a new lawyer.

But, Rex Dimmig with the Florida Public Defenders Association says he understands the need to punish lawyers who deliberately make those claims. But, the bill forces lawyers who sincerely admit they were ineffective to stop practicing for five years. And, Dimmig says that’s unfair.

“Honestly, capital cases take weeks to try. Mistakes can be made, and they are mistakes," Dimmig emphasized. "To take one of our lawyers—and capital lawyers have to have special qualifications, have to be specially trained—to take the limited resources we have of capital attorneys because someone has made a mistake and say for five years they cannot practice as a capital attorney, we believe is too harsh."

Another provision in the bill would eliminate publicly-financed clemency counsel for death row inmates. And, some like, Judge Belvin Perry, a Circuit Judge from the 9th Judicial Circuit, say that’s not a solution to systemic problem and warned the state could have a legal challenge on its hands.

“When you have 94 people who are on death row that are ready to go and didn’t start with the current Governor that we had. That’s where the problem lies. It’s systematic to the whole system and the more you tinker with the machinery dealing with the death penalty cases, the more you’ll get the federal courts involved, and when you get the federal courts involved, they disappear into a black hole,” said Perry.

Others like Democratic Representative Kionne McGhee of Miami also argued that would be bad for those who are proclaimed innocent.

“When I think about what this bill has the potential to do, I think about people like, David Keaton, Leroy Orange, Joseph Burrows, Clarence Bradley, Ronald Williamson, Michael Tony, and Anthony Porter," said McGhee.

"I think about those individuals who were wrongfully convicted and then to have their cases exonerated by the Governor.”

Several committee members had other concerns. And, Gaetz promised to keep working on the bill. He also pledged to see if the goal could be reached without the need to pass a constitutional amendment.

“If there is any way to accomplish our objective without the need for a joint resolution, we will seek any other meaningful vehicle to get the job done. But, if there is no other way this Legislature has to act and has to step forward," said Gaetz.

Both proposed committee bills passed favorably in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Wednesday. The proposed constitutional amendment needs three-fifths majority of the vote of both chambers before it can become an amendment on the November 2014 ballot.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.