The state’s Timely Justice Act was an attractive target for death penalty foes looking to bring attention to Florida’s flawed execution process.
They claimed the law, passed in 2013, wrongly shifted authority from the courts to the governor and compromised due process rights by imposing deadlines for death warrants to be signed. Attorneys representing death row inmates sued, hoping to have the law declared unconstitutional.
But the law is far more benign than its critics would have the public believe. And last week the Florida Supreme Court unanimously upheld the law, finding there was nothing in the Timely Justice Act that limits an inmate’s chance to have all appeals heard and for the governor to fully consider clemency before signing a death warrant.
That should quiet the over-the-top rhetoric that accompanied the legislative debate over the law. Lawmakers had hoped to lessen the time it takes to carry out a death sentence, a process that can leave the victims’ families to suffer for decades awaiting an execution.
Opponents made exaggerated claims that it would increase the risk of executing someone wrongly accused. After all, 24 death row inmates have been exonerated over the past 40 years while awaiting execution in Florida, more than in any other state.
But the Timely Justice Act doesn’t speed the appellate process or encroach upon the rights of the accused. In fact, it leaves the post-conviction legal reviews unchanged. Those include a review by the Florida Supreme Court, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, a round of post-conviction proceedings, another appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, a federal court review and a clemency process.
The Timely Justice Act simply instructs the Supreme Court clerk to notify the governor when appeals are exhausted and orders the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of that notification, provided the clemency process is completed. Additionally, the law requires the Supreme Court to produce an annual report to the Legislature on cases pending more than three years, and establishes an office in North Florida to represent death row inmates.
Those changes should help the process, but aren’t likely to shorten it.
As lawmakers debated the law last year, 155 inmates had been on death row for 20 years or longer; 10 had been there for more than 35 years. Such numbers are frustrating, particularly for victims’ families. But lawmakers also should tread lightly when considering laws that affect due process rights.
The average time for Florida’s death row inmates to await execution is 13 years, below the national average. Rather than focus simply on ways to legislate a shorter wait time, the state also should address the startling number of faulty convictions.
An American Bar Association review from 2006 called upon the state to create independent commissions to examine the causes of wrongful convictions, to better compensate attorneys for the accused and to bring Florida in line with other states by requiring that jury recommendations for death be unanimous, rather than a simple majority. The review found glaring racial, socioeconomic and geographical disparities in death sentences.
So far, the state hasn’t moved to address the more pressing issues surrounding its flawed death penalty process. This neglect can contribute to the legal delays in executions.
The Supreme Court got it right. The Timely Justice Act is constitutional, and largely inconsequential. State lawmakers have more work to do to strengthen the death penalty and justice in Florida.