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First Challenge Filed Against Fla's Execution Speed-Up Law

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LHatter
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WFSU

Outside Florida’s historic Capitol building one man stands with a plain, black and white sign. Kurt Wadsworth is a 27-year-old University of West Florida Student. He says he was relatively a-political, until he began reading news reports blasting the state’s so-called “Timely Justice Act.”

“They wanted to call it justice. But luckily, a great man walked the earth. His name was Martin Luther King. He defined justice as not hurting people. So they may want to call it justice, but I know, and we know in our hearts, that Justice is not hurting people.”  

Opponents say the new law could lead innocent people on death row to be executed before evidence comes to light that could exonerate them. The law’s supporters say it’s aimed at streamlining the death penalty process. One of biggest issues with the law is a provision giving the Governor 30-days to sign a death warrant after all appeals have been exhausted and he’s decided whether grant clemency. But Tallahassee Attorney Mark Schlackman says there’s a catch.

“Regardless of what the legislature might pass, it can’t curtail the governors clemency authority as vested in the constitution. So regardless of what the bill says, the Governor and only the Governor can decide whether or when to sign a death warrant”.

Schlackman, who serves on a commission aimed at freeing wrongfully convicted people, sides with Governor Rick Scott. In recent weeks, Scott has argued the Timely Justice Act won’t speed up executions in Florida. Others disagree.

“The Timely Justice Act could potentially result in a flood of death warrants," said Suzanne Keffer is with the state Commission on Capital Cases, a group of lawyers who litigate such cases.

The Timely Justice Act includes funding to re-start the North Florida Chapter of the group in order to increase the quality of death penalty defense attorneys.  In explaining why she believes the new law would speed up executions in Florida, Keffer points to roughly 90 death penalty cases expected to reach the Governor after the start of July. Many of those cases began decades ago, under a different process:

“He [The Governor] would sign a death warrant and the death warrant prompted attorneys for the death row inmates to file their post-conviction motion. Now, that immediate clemency and signing of the death warrant isn’t necessary to start the process.”  

Today, a clemency review is near the end of the process, not the start of that. But the estimated 90 cases that could reach Governor Scott in June include some of those older cases that already went through a clemency review. And Smith says unclear whether the Governor could, or will re-review the cases that started decades ago, under a different process. Though they disagree on the impact of the Timely Justice Act, Smith and Schlackman say it could eventually be challenged in court over questions about whether it interferes with the Governor’s authority and whether it violates a person’s right to due process.

The Timely Justice Act has been topic of scathing editorials around the state, and its even been discussed on national outlets like Slate Magazine. The popular NPR Program “This American Life” recently included a feature on the law. And all the discussion has some people wondering why Florida lawmakers approved the legislation in the first place.

An Eye For An Eye?

Back at Florida’s historic capital building an elderly woman walks up to join Kurt Wadsworth. Agnes Furey is against the death penalty, even though her daughter and grandson were murdered. The man convicted of the crime pled guilty to capital murder to avoid the death penalty and Furey says, it was a relief.

“I wanted him convicted, I wanted him held accountable for what he did, but I didn’t want him killed. I didn’t want the state killing him in my name.”  

During the legislature’s debate on the Timely Justice Act, its biggest champion was panhandle Republican Representative Matt Gaetz.

“Only God can judge, but we can sure set up the meeting,” Gaetz said during debate on the bill. He said the measure was aimed at keeping death penalty cases from wallowing in the system for years.

But that kind of language, says Furey, doesn’t do anyone any good. For her, Gaetz’ words don’t resonate. But  she knows there are others who feel differently.

“Every family is different. Some families, their first impulse is kill the bastard. I can understand that, I just can’t join it. Everybody has to reach their own conclusion when they are faced with that decision.”

There are more than 400 people on death row in Florida. Some 24 people have had their convictions overturned. Florida’s Timely Justice Act comes at a time when death penalty laws are on the decline.  More than 16 states have abolished their death penalty or are no longer enforcing it. Efforts to get rid of the death penalty in Florida failed during the last legislative session.

*Update: A group of death row inmates announced a lawsuit to block the "Timely Justice Act"