Thursday, October 12, 2006

Report details Florida's death penalty system beset by problems

Posted on Sat, Sep. 16, 2006

Report details Florida's death penalty system beset by problems
By Linda Kleindienst

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida's death penalty system is plagued with problems of fairness, accuracy and racial disparity in sentencing, according to a new report by a group of Florida lawyers and jurists.

Working under the auspices of the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, the group studied the state's capital punishment system for more than 18 months before releasing their recommendations Saturday.

The report criticized the state for: the number of innocent inmates sent to await execution; a racial disparity that shows those convicted of killing a white victim are far more likely to get a death sentence; the lack of oversight and funding for attorneys who handle Death Row appeals; and a death sentencing process that requires majority, not unanimous, jury agreement.
"Florida has released more people from Death Row than any other state, which suggests the system has serious problems," said Christopher Slobogin, a University of Florida law professor who chaired the eight-member group.

"It is small comfort that no one recently executed in Florida has been proven innocent, since some of them were not able to present all the proof they had and efforts at exoneration usually end once the person is dead."

Funding for the study came from the ABA and the European Union. Members of the team included a circuit judge, a state attorney, a former Florida Supreme Court justice and a former public defender, many of them death penalty supporters.

The report identified 11 problem areas in the state system, including the high number of inmates found innocent and released from Death Row, 22 since 1973 - more than any state in the nation. Combined, those exonerated spent about 150 years in prison before being released.
"There is much work to be done to insure that innocent people are not put to death," said Mark Schlakman, program director for the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University and a member of the study group.

As of Friday, there were 377 inmates on Florida's Death Row.

Some of the exonerated inmates were cleared by new DNA testing.

"There is a difficult balance between swiftness and fairness, but the governor has been a great proponent of extending the time on DNA testing. He also signed into law a measure that did away with the deadline altogether," said Alia Faraj, spokeswoman director for Gov. Jeb Bush.
After reviewing previous death penalty studies, including one done by the Florida Supreme Court, the report noted that those convicted of killing white victims are far more likely to receive a death sentence and be executed than those convicted of killing non-white victims. Since 1979, when Florida reinstated the death penalty, none of the 60 executed have been white defendants who killed African-American victims.

While U.S. Supreme Court decisions in recent years have stressed the importance of unanimous jury decisions to impose the death penalty, Florida's law requires only a simple majority. Last year, state Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero urged the Legislature to make the change, suggesting that Florida's death penalty law could be open to attack. But the Legislature this year refused to budge.

The bill to require unanimity was filed by state Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, but was stymied by election year politics.

"We need to realize that the more efficient our death penalty system is, the more accurate it is, the better off we all are as a society," said Seiler, who supports the death penalty.
Attorney General Charlie Crist, the Republican candidate for governor, has urged the Legislature not to make any changes, suggesting it might weaken the state's law. He has called the current system constitutional and appropriate to punish the guilty "as well as deter potential future murderers."

It takes a unanimous jury vote to convict a person of first degree murder, but Crist said the same is not required in the sentencing phase because Florida's juries only make recommendations on life or death, they do not impose the sentence.

"Florida law requires that the jury and judge hear and consider all factors that might make a convicted murderer a candidate for life in prison instead of receiving the death penalty," Crist wrote legislative leaders late last year. "Therefore, the jury's recommendation is an informed action representing the collective wisdom of 12 everyday Florida citizens."

The team that wrote the report measured Florida law, procedure and practices against protocols developed by the ABA to evaluate fairness and accuracy in the imposition of the death penalty. While the ABA has recommended a moratorium on executions until all states have eliminated flaws in their system, the Florida report takes no position on a moratorium.

The group has recommended the state establish commissions to investigate wrongful convictions and to review claims of factual innocence while also suggesting the state adopt new standards for the qualifications of and payment for death row appeals attorneys, create new rules on the relevance of mental disability and make the clemency process more transparent.
"Our justice system seeks to provide a fair way of making accurate decisions about innocence and guilt," said ABA President Karen J. Mathis. "In death penalty cases, where people's lives are on the line, it is particularly important that we do all we can to ensure that the system is fair."

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