Will a new death penalty law, awaiting the governor’s signature, speed up or slow down executions?
When Larry Eugene Mann was executed April 10, he had been on Florida’s death row for 32 years, more than three times as long as his victim, 10-year-old Elisa Nelson, had lived.
A new law, known as the Timely Justice Act of 2013, is designed to reduce the time between conviction and execution to less than 10 years. Currently awaiting the signature of Gov. Rick Scott, the measure was approved by the Senate 84-34 and the House 28-10 in late April.
The bill is being blasted by death penalty opponents and the American Civil Liberties Union as being unfair to inmates who may have been wrongly convicted and need time to prove their cases. It comes at a time when other states are doing away with capital punishment.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee and sponsor of the bill, said it's designed to correct flaws within the current system.
“The death penalty system is broken in Florida. It is justice delayed for the inmates and justice denied to the victims,” he said.
At this time, there are 155 inmates on Death Row who have been waiting for execution for more than 20 years, Gaetz said.
The last five convicted killers who were executed waited an average of 26.8 years for their deaths, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. The average time between conviction and execution in Florida is about 13 years; the national time is 14.8 years.
Gaetz said his bill “reduces the number of frivolous motions” that don’t speak to guilt or innocence. Inmates can still challenge their convictions and sentences with new evidence, new witnesses and DNA, he said.
A key provision of the legislation requires the governor to sign death warrants within 30 days for all inmates who have exhausted all their appeals and clemency.
Gaetz said he understands there are 13 inmates who are “warrant ripe.”
“I don’t think any governor enjoys death warrants,” Gaetz said. “This transitions it from a purely subjective process to a ministerial process.”
Stephen Harper, who heads the Death Penalty Clinic at Florida International University’s College of Law, said the changes in the law could result in challenges to it.
“Whenever you tinker with the system in this kind of way, you risk litigation and slow it down,” Harper said.
Harper noted would be bad precedent for Scott to sign a measure that limits gubernatorial power.
Currently, the governor reviews the inmate’s status and considers other relevant information before signing a death warrant, but the timing is somewhat up to him and his legal staff.
The Timely Justice Act seemed to gain momentum after Mann’s April 10 execution. Mann was convicted of the 1980 abduction and killing of Elisa Vera Nelson as she rode her bicycle to school in Palm Harbor.
“It is glaringly apparent that there is something fundamentally flawed with a justice system that takes 32 years to bring to justice a pedophile who confessed to kidnapping and murdering a 10-year-old girl,” Jeff Nelson, the victim’s brother, who was 12 when the slaying occurred, told the Tampa Bay Times.
Leading the charge against the bill is Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a coalition of individuals and organizations united to abolish the death penalty in Florida. FADP claims that curtailing the appeals process means innocent inmates could be executed.
“It is not about justice, being smart or tough on crime, or wise use of taxpayer dollars — it is about political posturing,” Mark Elliott, FADP executive director, said of the bill.
Florida has had a history of wrongful convictions, which has resulted in the freeing of 24 inmates previously on Death Row. Many were freed after being held there more than 10 years.
“It seems both tragic and ironic that the state that sends the highest number of wrongly convicted people to Death Row is attempting to speed up executions,” Elliott said.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Florida leads all states in exonerations with 24, followed by Illinois at 20 and Texas at 12.
The American Civil Liberties Union is also opposed to the new law.
“Do we really want a law that, requiring the governor to sign a death warrant on a ‘timely basis,’ will at some point mean that an innocent person has been put to death? There is no fixing a wrongful execution — once someone has been executed, there is no remedy,” Carlos Ivan Ramos, director of the Northeast Florida Region of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement.
With four death sentences last year, Duval County is tied with Riverside County in California for second among U.S. counties with the most death sentences in 2012. Only California's Los Angeles County had more with six, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Since 2009, 15 defendants have been sentenced to death in Duval County, 12 of whom are black, according to Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Harper expressed concerns about the new law.
“My worry, it will speed up the death penalty process and hurt a lot of people, innocent people,” said Harper, who worked for 17 years in the public defender’s office in Miami-Dade County.
The Miami Herald urged the governor to veto it.
“If the point is to reduce the stay on Death Row to less than a decade, it’s the wrong focus. The real problem is sloppy justice, cases where evidence is hidden, for instance, and current state rules that allow judges to impose the death penalty without even a unanimous jury vote,” the Herald wrote in an April 29 editorial.
Florida’s action goes against the tide of states choosing to abandon the death penalty. Maryland is the latest, with Gov. Martin O’Malley signing a bill on May 2 to abolish the death penalty. It became the 18th state to repeal capital punishment. New Mexico and Connecticut have also voted to abolish the death penalty.
“Other parts of the country are slowing it down,” Harper noted.
In a statement released by his office, O’Malley explained his reasoning behind signing the bill eliminating the death penalty.
“Maryland has effectively eliminated a policy that is proven not to work. Evidence shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent, it cannot be administered without racial bias, and it costs three times as much as life in prison without parole.”
Both Elliott and Gaetz characterized Florida’s current system as broken; Elliott said some change is needed, but not this.
“Florida’s system of state executions is like a rickety old public bus that costs millions of dollars to operate,” Elliott said. “The brakes are shot and the steering is out and it's constantly crashing into innocent people. The answer shouldn’t be to pack in more passengers, hit the gas and go faster.”