Florida's Timely Justice Act Is Neither Timely Nor Justice

The bill -- passed by the Florida legislature and now awaiting the signature of Governor Rick Scott -- would expedite the death penalty process in the Sunshine state.
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George Orwell himself could not have come up with a more deviously named piece of legislation than Florida's ill-advised Timely Justice Act. In the world of doublespeak, it conveys the image of efficiency, effectiveness and fairness, while doing exactly the opposite. Surely, its sponsors wanted to misrepresent and mislead, confuse and obfuscate, and change the subject. Here's why:

The bill -- passed by the Florida legislature and now awaiting the signature of Governor Rick Scott -- would expedite the death penalty process in the Sunshine state. This bill would radically change the death penalty process by taking the power of issuing execution warrants out of the hands of the governor, in favor of an automatic timetable to determine which death row prisoner is next scheduled for execution. The Act would require the governor to sign an execution warrant within 30 days of review by the State Supreme Court. And the state of Florida would be compelled to execute the defendant within 180 days of the warrant.

Supporters say that death penalty appeals take too long, perhaps as long as 20 years, and point to this reality as proof the system is broken.

However, by placing death row prisoners on a fast track to execution, the Timely Justice Act will only increase the risk of executing the innocent. Florida has distinguished itself as the state with the highest number of prisoners exonerated from death row -- 24 out of the 142 individuals exonerated nationwide since 1973. Indeed, the Florida death machine, the national leader in death sentences, is broken. But what do you do when there is a problem on the assembly line? Do you speed up the conveyer belt? No, you shut the whole thing down.

Since the old days when Florida used the death penalty as punishment for aiding runaway slaves, the practice has been unfair, arbitrary and racist. Florida is the only state requiring a simple majority vote of 7-to-5 for a death conviction. The only other state allowing non-unanimous jury verdicts is Alabama, with 10 votes. Meanwhile, the Florida Supreme Court and the Florida Bar Association have called for a review of the state death penalty system. Further, in 2009 the American Bar Association made a number of recommendations -- including mandating unanimous jury verdicts, addressing geographic and racial disparities, and adequate compensation for defense attorneys in capital cases. But none of their recommendations have been adopted by the state. This is the worst time to go ahead with this legislation.

While some prisoners currently on death row would be subject to immediate warrants under the new measure, others who are seeking clemency could face the same fate. Moreover, many among Florida's death row population have exhausted their appeals simply because their attorneys missed the filing deadline. This means there is no guarantee their cases have been properly investigated. Without a proper review by the Governor, we will never know how many viable claims of innocence exist among them.

But we do know this: Innocent people have been sentenced to death, and under the Timely Justice Act, Florida's death row survivors may well have been dead men.

Freddie Lee Pitts, an exonerated death row survivor who faced execution by the state of Florida for a crime he didn't commit, once said, "You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can't release him from the grave." Pitts and a co-defendant, both black, were convicted for the 1963 murder of two white men, despite the absence of physical evidence. Pitts had incompetent defense counsel, his confession was beaten out of him, and the state had suppressed evidence. After a white man confessed to the murders, the sheriff said "I already got two n*ggers waiting for the chair in Raiford for those murders." Pitts spent 12 years on death row after receiving a new trial and a pardon from then-Governor Askew.

Seth Penalver, the latest person exonerated in the United States, was released from death row in December 2012 after spending 18 years in custody, and 13 years awaiting his own murder for a triple murder in South Florida he did not commit. He was acquitted of the murders, along with armed burglary and robbery, in a retrial.

A free man in 2009, Herman Lindsey had spent three years on Florida's death row. Lindsey was wrongfully convicted of killing a pawn shop clerk, in a case based upon circumstantial evidence. In addition, he received an unfair trial in which the prosecution prejudiced and improperly inflamed the jury.

Delbert Tibbs, who is African-American, was convicted in 1974 of the murder of a 24-year-old white man and the rape of his 17-year-old companion near Fort Myers, Florida. At the time, he was a seminary student from Chicago traveling around the country. In a case of mistaken identity, Tibbs was given death for the murder, and a life sentence for the rape. He spent two years on Florida's death row.

Finally, Juan Melendez was exonerated in 2002, but only after spending nearly 18 years locked up for the brutal murder of a white man who had been shot and his throat slashed. There was no physical evidence against him, some sketchy witnesses, and the prosecutor withheld evidence that would have proven his innocence. Yet, Melendez, a migrant fruit picker, could not afford an attorney, and was sentenced to death within a week. Luckily, a transcript of a taped confession by the real killer 16 years after the fact surfaced.

These five men -- Pitts, Penalver, Lindsey, Tibbs and Melendez -- were among the 40 death row survivors who wrote a letter to Governor Rick Scott urging him to veto the Timely Justice Act. They are members of Witness to Innocence, an anti-death penalty organization of exonerated death row survivors. After all, who can argue with those who have witnessed the inherent flaws of the death penalty firsthand? They survived despite a system intent on killing them, literally planning the homicide of innocent men and women.

So in the world of Orwellian doublespeak, up is down, and war is peace. And executing innocent people is "Timely Justice." In reality, what we have here is expediency without justice, finality without fairness, and a McJustice system that cares little about guilt or innocence. Governor Scott should veto this bill before it is too late. Former Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll once said he "epitomizes Martin Luther King Jr." That is highly unlikely, but Scott can begin by listening to Dr. King, who said "Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God."

Governor Scott can end this now, before he has to explain that the state of Florida executes innocent people because there isn't enough time and it was just taking too long.

David A. Love is the executive director of Witness to Innocence, a national nonprofit organization that empowers exonerated death row prisoners and their family members to become effective leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty.

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