When it comes to capital punishment in Florida, which is the greater outrage: that it took so long to execute Larry Mann, whom the state put to death last week, 32 years after he kidnapped and murdered 10-year-old Elisa Nelson? Or that 23 inmates have been released from Death Row, the most of any state?
In the Florida Legislature, the clear priority is the first outrage. Bills that have cleared two committees in the House and Senate would place on the 2014 ballot a constitutional amendment that would shift rulemaking for capital cases from the Florida Supreme Court to the Legislature and then set new rules designed to speed up executions.
To supporters of House Bill 7083 and Senate Bill 1750, the justification is in the legislative analysis. Florida has 405 people on Death Row, and more than 150 have been there for more than 20 years. Ten have been there for more than 35 years. Between 1976, when the Supreme Court allowed states to resume capital punishment, and 2012 there were 74 executions in Florida. In Texas, there were nearly 500. Virginia executed 109 people during that time. What’s wrong with Florida?
Former Gov. Jeb Bush asked that question in 2000. At that time, the Legislature’s answer was a 10-year limit on death penalty appeals. Two members of the Florida Supreme Court had all but warned about such an approach, and the court struck down the law as unconstitutional. In 2002, the seventh Death Row inmate exonerated after more than 10 years went free.
The Legislature, especially the House, has mindlessly attacked Florida’s court system for the last two years, and this year is no different. During debate Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee — Elisa Nelson’s brother was one of the speakers — members like Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, used soft-core demagoguery to denounce judges and lawyers for slowing up Death Row appeals.
The proposed swifter rules are modeled on the Texas system, which Jeb Bush also praised, and if the amendment gets to the ballot it almost certainly will pass. But with all respect to Elisa Nelson’s family, the greater outrage would be the state killing an innocent person. Awareness of that possibility has affected juries. The Death Penalty Information Center reports that between 1994 and 2012, death sentences declined nationally by 75 percent. In Florida, which in 1994 allowed a sentence of life without parole, the drop was 44 percent.
Supporters call their legislation the “Timely Justice Act.” The danger is that the state will worry about timeliness than justice.
for The Post Editorial Board