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Bills Streamlining Florida's Death Penalty Process Pass Another Committee

Florida lawmakers are looking to streamline the death penalty process to avoid the lengthy appeals they say are currently plaguing the system. Two measures aiming to do just that cleared another committee Thursday, and are one step closer to coming up for a vote by the full Legislature.

Most states in the nation impose the death penalty. Florida is one of them, but it’s also a state that’s known for its lengthy death penalty process. It’s behind only California, the state in the nation with the most number of people facing the death penalty.

Today, there are more than 400 death row inmates in Florida—nearly half have been on death row for more than 20 years. And, Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Shalimar is the sponsor of a bill that aims to speed up that process.

“As a matter of fact, as just an example, the last person that the state of Florida executed went on a vengeful murderous rampage, killed nine people, stood up at trial, and said ‘I committed the murders, I did it, and I’d like to die.‘ And, it took 28 years to execute that person. So, I think that’s indicative of a blight on our legal system, and something that we ought to fix by having a more efficient system that protects due process,” said Gaetz.

His bill to cut down on the lengthy appeals process has several parts. It includes a provision that aims to cut down on “insincere” claims, like a death row inmate falsely claiming they have a conflict of interest with their attorney. Another type of appeal that Gaetz says contributes to delays in the process is from lawyers who say they were ineffective as counsel, and that a death row inmate now would have to get a new lawyer.

“In fact, if there is that determination, those folks would not be able to litigate those types of cases for a period of five years,” added Gaetz.

While the Florida Bar is not yet on the record whether it’s for or against the proposal, the Bar’s Steve Metz applauds Gaetz’ effort so far and his willingness to work with the courts.

“And, just a week ago, the Chief Justice formed a special five-member task force of the Criminal Rules Procedural Committee that is going to take all of these issues that Chairman Gaetz has brought to their attention and these are five judges that are real experts in these kinds of cases. And, they’re going to report to the Legislature in September of this year. And, Chairman Gaetz has been really very inclusive and we hope at the next committee stop, you’ll see an even better product,” said Metz.

But, Democratic Representative Darryl Rouson says he believes the proposal is a bit premature and should be put on hold.

"I think Ray Charles could see that it [the bill] is defective right now, that it is not complete right now."

“There’s a five-person task force made up of judges and experts who are looking at this, and I think this product is premature. This, as it stands today, I’m down on this today. I’m not down on your heart, Representative Gaetz. We all know your passion for this process. But, this product, I think Ray Charles could see that it’s defective right now, that it’s not complete right now,” said Rouson.

“I love Ray Charles. And, if Ray Charles were to classify my product brought before the Committee today as defective, I would hope that—God rest his soul—he would at least be able to identify one defective piece of the product, not just merely classify it as defective. I think that the product is rich with opportunity to be able to create a more effective system, but we haven’t heard any specific concerns today. So, I urge you to help this along and hopefully, when we hit the floor, we’ll really have something that we can be proud of," Gaetz responded.

The measure passed 8 to 3 largely along party lines with Democrats opposed in the House Justice Appropriations Committee Thursday. Meanwhile over in the other chamber, the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee took up its companion bill. That measure is sponsored by Republican Senator Joe Negron of Stuart.

His proposal is very much the same as Gaetz’ bill with one exception—a change he made Thursday.

“The House Bill, that Representative [Matt] Gaetz has, takes away your right to have an attorney at a clemency hearing. And, I don’t support that. I think that a clemency hearing is an important judicial matter. I think someone should be entitled to representation. We have a cap on the fees that can be charged.  So, I would prefer to keep your right to an attorney for a clemency hearing in the law. So, that’s all it does. It just keeps the same law,” said Negron.

While the change had the backing of the Florida Public Defenders Association, the group wanted to include more lawyers in the clemency process. And, Negron says he’s willing to work that out.

The measure passed 10 to 2 in the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee Thursday with two Democrats voting in opposition. Both the House and Senate measures have one more committee stop to go before they head for a Floor vote.

Meanwhile, both measures also come with a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow only lawmakers to have rulemaking authority over the post-conviction appeals process, rather than the courts. The House sponsor, Gaetz, says it’s currently on hold as he works together with the courts.

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.