Criminals sentenced to die in Florida could wait less time until their executions under a bill the House passed on Thursday. The capital punishment speed-up passed after a debate filled with scripture and emotional pleas.
Thursday’s House debate sounded like a church service at times, with quotes like “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the lord,” “Genesis 9:6. If man sheds blood, by man shall his blood be shed,” and “Those of you who are without sin, cast the first vote yes” echoing through the chambers.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Shalimar), sponsor of the measure to “fix” Florida’s capital punishment system, said, “Only God can judge. But we can sure set up the meeting.”
The bill was a joint effort with Rep. J.W. Grant (R-Tampa) and Rep. Dave Kerner (D-Palm Springs).
The state has more than 400 inmates on death row, 10 of whom who’ve been able to stave off execution for 35 years through the appeals process. The average time until execution is more than 13 years. Grant says the bill cuts down on convicted violent criminals’ being able to bring frivolous motions to delay the inevitable.
“Members, we’re not speeding up the death penalty, we’re just slowing down fraud,” he said. “We’re just simply saying that, when you’ve been sentenced to death, you can’t abuse rules of civil procedure and the appellate process.”
The bill is expected to bring about executions more quickly by adding another way death warrants can be issued. By one estimate, 90 inmates would be executed within the first six months of its signing.
Gaetz said, he can’t look families of murder victims in the eye and tell them they have to wait any longer for justice. But opponents of the measure point to the fact that Florida has overturned more convictions of death-row inmates than any other state. Twenty-four people sentenced to death have later been exonerated in light of additional evidence, including some who were in prison for decades. That’s why some lawmakers, like Mia Jones (D-Jacksonville), said they could not support the bill.
“The one thing that you cannot take back is if you put a person to death, you can’t bring them back to life. If you put a person to death and that person is innocent, that’s one innocent life too many,” Jones said.
The measure passed the House with some bipartisan support on a vote of 84 to 34.
Supporters said, it should save the state money while preserving the rights of the accused to due process. In fact, one provision of the bill is designed to require more competent court-appointed lawyers for defendants who can’t afford to hire their own. And it reestablishes and funds a specialized group of lawyers, called the capital collateral regional counsel, who defend death row inmates when direct appeals have been exhausted.
Rep. Larry Metz (R-Groveland) said, the bill isn’t about guilt or innocence—that’s for judges and juries to decide.
Metz said, “What it will end up doing is it will hold attorneys in the system as well as judges accountable to their oaths of office as officers of the court, to uphold the rule of law.”
Still, other lawmakers said, they appreciated what it’s trying to accomplish, but the bill is premature. They said, the Florida Supreme Court just formed a committee to study how the post-conviction process can be made more efficient, but their report isn’t due until later in the year.
The death penalty measure is now in the Senate and could be taken up on Friday.