In 2006, the American Bar Association showed Florida how to fix the state’s death penalty system in the best way. Having ignored those ideas for seven years, the Legislature now proposes to fix the system in the worst way.
Heading to Gov. Rick Scott is House Bill 7083, titled “The Timely Justice Act.” Rather than seek to make sure that executions are carried out fairly, the legislation seeks to have executions happen sooner. In the state with the most exonerations from Death Row — 24 since 1979 — this would be like giving Bernie Madoff a new line of credit.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, is the sponsor of HB 7083. As he put it, there are “problem judges” and lawyers who needlessly drag out Death Row appeals. It is true that of the 405 people awaiting execution, 16 committed their crimes before 1980. But as the legislative staff said in analyzing the bill, the average time between conviction and execution in Florida is 13.22 years, less than the national average.
HB 7083 rests on another faulty premise: All capital punishment cases are the same. A current case is the latest to debunk that premise.
Gov. Rick Scott has signed a death warrant for William Van Poyck. In 1987, as an inmate at Glades Correctional Institution, Van Poyck tried to escape from a doctor’s office in West Palm Beach. Guard Fred Griffis was shot and killed. Van Poyck should be in prison for life. But last week, the wife of the other inmate in the incident backed up Van Poyck’s story that he didn’t fire the fatal shot.
In Florida, juries use 11 exacerbating factors and seven mitigating factors to determine whether to recommend a sentence of death. We doubt that any state could write a death penalty law that would be fair across all cases.
Far more serious, though, is the risk that under HB 7083 Florida would kill an innocent person. In 2000, the Legislature passed the Death Penalty Reform Act. It set a 10-year limit for appeals. The Florida Supreme Court struck it down. Had the law been in place, at least seven innocent men might have died. HB 7083 would restore all of the provisions the court struck down.
Also, the legislation would remove from the governor sole power to issue a death warrant. The secretary of the Department of Corrections could issue as many as three warrants every 90 days if the Florida Supreme Court certifies that an inmate has exhausted his appeals. The clear intent is for the state prison chief to pressure a potentially reluctant governor. A warrant could be issued now for as many as 100 Death Row inmates.
Seven years ago, the American Bar Association recommended that Florida require a 12-0 jury vote to recommend a death sentence, as is required for conviction. Currently, a simple majority is enough to recommend death. That inconsistency is only one reason why Florida has a flawed capital punishment system. Gov. Scott should veto HB 7083 because justice matters more than timeliness.
for The Post Editorial Board