On April 29, 2013, the Florida Senate sent Governor Rick Scott a bill that would speed up appeals in cases where the death penalty has been imposed, despite Florida’s troubling record of making mistakes in death penalty cases.
House Bill 7083, the “Timely Justice Act,” requires the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days after a state Supreme Court review, with the execution taking place within 180 days after that. It also eliminates certain types of defenses in death penalty cases.
Opponents fear that trying to shorten the appeal process could lead to innocent people being executed. Since Florida reinstated the death penalty in 1973, 24 people who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated — more than any other death penalty state. Another 75 prisoners have been executed in Florida. As Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, points out, “That’s one exoneration for every three executions.”
Many of these exonerations took longer than the new bill contemplates for appeals in capital cases: James Richardson (21 years), Juan Melendez (18), Rudolph Holton (16), Frank Lee Smith (14), Freddie Pitts (12), Wilbur Lee (12), Joseph Brown (13), and Seth Penalver (13).
The reliability of capital punishment in Florida is further undermined by the state’s failure to provide competent counsel in capital cases. Florida has slashed funding for indigent defense, and it caps the fees in a capital case at $15,000, which barely covers a lawyer’s in-court time. Few lawyers are willing to take capital cases and those who do are under-resourced and often incompetent.
The new bill sets competence standards for lawyers taking capital cases and bars lawyers from handling capital cases for five years if found to have provided constitutionally deficient representation in two cases. But the bill does not provide any additional resources to pay for more competent counsel.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, has said that the bill would require the governor to immediately sign execution warrants for 18 Floridians.