Thursday, October 12, 2006

Fix Florida's death penalty to assure justice done,0,4612825.story?coll=orl-opinion-headlines

Fix Florida's death penalty to assure justice done

Karen J. Mathis Special to the Sentinel

Posted October 10, 2006

Since 1973 Florida has freed more people from death row who were wrongly sentenced to death than any other state in the nation -- 22 people who lost years of their lives before justice was done.

They were the lucky ones who ultimately were exonerated. We do not know if other people wrongly remain on death row or have been executed due to flaws in Florida's death-penalty system, but thanks to a recent report from a team of respected lawyers in Florida we do know how to reform the system to make it fair and accurate in the future.

The death penalty is an emotional and difficult issue. As a society, we sympathize with victims of capital crimes and their loved ones, whose suffering deepens while the death-penalty process plays out.

We also realize that if a state has the extraordinary power to take human life, it must do everything in its power to provide fair and accurate justice. Convicting the wrong person does not provide justice.

It is a tragic mistake that only compounds a heinous crime.Is a system that wrongly sent 22 people to death row sound?

The Florida Death Penalty Assessment Team, working under the auspices of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, identified serious problems that implicate the fairness and accuracy of Florida's death-penalty system. The team also recommended ways to fix them.

The governor, Legislature and courts should implement these recommendations.

In assessing Florida's system, the team measured state law, procedure and practices against protocols developed by the ABA to evaluate death-penalty jurisprudence. I

ts findings are troubling. It found the state did not comply with 23 protocols, partially complied with 36, and fully complied with only eight.

The team was unable to assess compliance with 25 protocols because the records do not exist or were not easily obtainable.

The team's specific concerns reveal a system in which people charged in death-penalty cases do not receive qualified or adequately compensated lawyers; juries can recommend death sentences with only a simple majority in agreement; perpetrators of capital crimes against white people are executed far more frequently than perpetrators of capital crimes against minorities; and clemency decisions are veiled in secrecy.

Knowing these problems makes Florida's 22 death-penalty exonerations less surprising but no less shocking.The team is not alone in voicing many of these concerns. Two sitting Florida Supreme Court justices have decried the poor qualifications of lawyers registered to handle post-conviction death penalty cases.

In 2000, the Governor's Task Force on Capital Cases recommended reforms to eliminate potential or actual racial bias in Florida's capital-punishment system, and in 1991 the Florida Supreme Court Commission on Racial and Ethnic Bias concluded that the death penalty is "not colorblind."

In a decision in 2005, the Florida Supreme Court called on the Legislature to pass a law requiring jury unanimity in sentencing recommendations; legislation to this effect was introduced but failed to pass.

To help address these problems and make Florida's death-penalty system fairer and more accurate, the team offers sensible proposals. These recommendations include the creation of two independent commissions: one to establish the cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases and propose ways to prevent them in the future, and another to review claims of factual innocence in capital cases that, if sustained, would be reviewed by a panel of judges.

They also include enhancing state qualification and compensation standards for lawyers handling post-conviction death-penalty cases, requiring that jury sentencing decisions in death-penalty cases be unanimous, changing the rules governing the relevance of mental disability in capital cases, and performing a study of racial disparities in Florida's death-penalty system.No human system can be perfect, but Florida can make its death-penalty system fairer and more accurate by implementing the team's recommendations.

Correcting the system's flaws hurts no one and will make the system stronger. Doing nothing puts people's lives at risk.

Punishing the guilty is only one side of the equation. The other is protecting the innocent.

Only when Florida does both will true justice be done.

Karen J. Mathis is president of the American Bar Association.
She wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel

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