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Scott Signs Fast-Track Execution Bill, Making 13 Death Row Inmates Immediately Eligible

| June 15, 2013

The makeshift bell that opponents of the death penalty ring during vigils at every execution in Starke, the state prison where inmates are executed. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

The makeshift bell that opponents of the death penalty ring during vigils at every execution in Starke, the state prison where inmates are executed. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed the controversial “Timely Justice Act,” a measure aimed at reducing delays in carrying out the death penalty in Florida. The signature makes at least 13 inmates immediately eligible for death warrants, which must be signed within 30 days of the state Supreme Court certifying that an inmate’s appeals and clemency reviews have been exhausted. Once the governor signs a death warrant, executioners at Starke state prison have six months to carry out the killing.

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Opponents have argued that the measure (HB 7083) will heighten the possibility of executing innocent people, but Scott rejected that argument as he signed it. With that new law, Scott may be on course to sign the death warrants of at least 21 inmates since he took office, in one term, equaling the number of inmates executed during Jeb Bush’s eight years. On Wednesday, William van Poyck became the eighth inmate executed on Scott’s watch. Marshall Gore will be the ninth when he is killed by lethal injection on June 24.

Since Florida resumed executions in the 1970’s, twenty-four wrongfully convicted death row prisoners have been exonerated thus far (the largest number of wrongfully convicted and exonerated death-sentenced prisoners of any state in the country) while seventy-seven prisoners have been executed. “That’s one exoneration for every three executions,” said Mark Elliott, Director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “It is unconscionable to hurry up executions and further restrict access to evidence of innocence.”

The Timely Justice Act “improves the orderly administration of capital punishment in our state,” wrote the governor. “The bill does not increase the risk of executions of persons who did not commit murder.”

The measure cuts the time between sentencing and execution by imposing strict time frames for appeals, post-conviction motions and reports on case progress.

In part, it requires the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court to notify the governor when a Death Row inmate’s state and federal court appeals have been completed. The governor would then have 30 days to issue a death warrant if the executive clemency process has finished. The warrant would require that the execution be carried out within 180 days.

Sheila Hopkins of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes capital punishment, said the bill will put pressure on Scott and every governor who follows him into office.

“The bill says he shall sign the death warrant within a certain number of days of the executive clemency process being completed,” Hopkins said. “He is being told that he is to do this.”

But Scott argued that the measure is the object of “misrepresentation” by opponents.

“It does not ‘fast-track’ death-penalty cases through the court system,” he wrote in his transmittal message on the measure. “It does not change the full panoply of judicial review available to death-sentenced inmates.”

But House sponsor Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, posted a message Friday on Twitter that appeared to disagree with the governor’s position about whether the bill will speed up executions.

Gaetz tweeted his thanks to Scott for signing the bill and noted, “Several on death row need to start picking out their last meals.”

Scott’s office helped draft the Timely Justice Act, according to Gaetz, who called it “a modest down payment on the reforms that we need to ensure that victims’ families aren’t waiting decades for justice.”

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, issued a statement condemning the changes and charging Scott with signing the bill for political gain.

“Shame on the governor for putting the cynical calculation of his chances for re-election over ensuring that Florida will never execute an innocent person,” Simon wrote. “Signing the ‘Rush to Execute’ bill (the grotesquely-named ‘Timely Justice Act’) will make this next year the deadliest and ugliest in the history of Florida’s death row.”

If Scott signed the bill for political gain, however, he went against the tide of calls, letters and emails urging him to veto it. As of Thursday, his office had received 447 phone calls, with 438 opposed to the bill; 14 letters, with 13 opposed; and 14,571 emails, with 14,565 opposed.

Scott also ignored pleas from the Conference of Catholic Bishops. Michael McCarron, the conference director, wrote Scott last month, noting that the state had led the U.S. in death sentences handed down in 2012.

“This fact, coupled with Florida’s other dubious distinction of leading the country in the number of death sentences overturned, compels our state to conduct a careful and deliberate review of the system,” McCarron wrote Scott.

The Death Penalty Information Center lists Florida Death Row inmates who were under a sentence of death for more than 10 years before being exonerated by new evidence of their innocence:
James Richardson (21 years), Juan Melendez (18), Rudolph Holton (16), Frank Lee Smith (14), Freddie Pitts (12), Wilbur Lee (12), Joseph Brown (13), and Seth Penalver (13).

According to the Innocence Project of Florida, in January, 2000, some 14 years after his death sentence, Frank Lee Smith died of cancer on Florida’s Death Row. After his death, DNA testing not only confirmed his innocence, but identified the real perpetrator.

Less than six months ago, Seth Penalver became Florida’s 24th exonerated Death Row prisoner. Penalver was released after 18 years in prison and on Death Row. “If executions are sped up, then we will be killing innocent people like me.” said Penalver. “Evidence of my innocence was withheld and hidden for almost eighteen years after my conviction.” Seth Penalver is one of eight Floridians who were exonerated more than ten years after being sentenced to death. “Executing innocent people is murder by all, not justice for all,” said Penalver.

Juan Melendez was on Florida’s Death Row for almost 18 years for a crime he did not commit. A “lost” confession by the real perpetrator was presented some 16 years after his conviction. Melendez was exonerated and freed.

But Scott’s office disputed that any of the 24 exonerated inmates would have been executed if the Timely Justice Act had been in place. It said that none of the 24 would have been certified as eligible for a death warrant under the requirements of HB 7083, because none of them had exhausted their legal remedies.

The Timely Justice Act passed the House 84-34 and the Senate 28-10, mostly on party lines.

Lawmakers also voted down an effort to amend the bill to require the unanimous vote of a jury to impose the death penalty. Florida is the only state in the Union where a simple majority of a 12-person jury can sentence a defendant to death. In Alabama, a 10-2 vote is necessary, while the rest of the death-penalty states require the jury’s decision to be unanimous.

Florida has the nation’s second largest Death Row with 405 people, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s latest report, The Death Penalty in 2012: Year End Report. Florida also sentences far more people to death than any other state. Last year, Florida had 22 new death sentences out of 78 nationally—that’s more than one quarter of all new death sentences in the U.S.

–FlaglerLive and News Service of Florida

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17 Responses for “Scott Signs Fast-Track Execution Bill, Making 13 Death Row Inmates Immediately Eligible”

  1. r&r says:

    That’s great. The sentence should be carried out within 6 to 12 months.. The victims deserve closure instead of the killers spending 10, 29 or 30 years in luxury at the tax payers expense.

    • Ted says:

      So if the person convicted by chance DIDN’t do the crime, in your scope of thinking, kill them anyway? People have been freed from death row years after it was proven they didn’t commit the crime they were condemed for.

    • kosherdog says:

      Simple, 5 to 6 years after conviction, carry out the execution. However, if ever proved not guilty after the execution, then the entire posecuting team should serve Life Sentence without parole. That way, the prosecuters will have an incentive to get it right and and not to use people/cases as tools to further their careers.

  2. fla native says:

    Lethal injection is too go for this trash. Behead them.

  3. Ambroz says:

    First saw this on CNN, then read the blog. Very disturbing.

  4. tulip says:

    There is no reason NOT to quickly check the the DNA of a prisoner of person on trial. “They” say it is time consuming. There have been dna tests done and the results back in a matter of days in some cases. It’s almost like they don’t care. Same thing with the rape kits that have been sitting on evidence shelves for years. I think it’s very unjust not to do dna tests right away as innocent prisoners sit in jail for decades.

    If it’s known 100% positive the person murdered someone, then the death sentence should be executed quickly and not be allowed to sit in prison and be supported for 20 odd years.

    They could very quickly get a dna test from every person on death row, exonerate the innocent ones and, after a reasonable time of a very few years to appeal, etc. then act on the execution and save the taxpayer some money.

    I would hope the dna tests were done on the 13 eligible prisoners before their execution. If they are truly guilty , I’m glad they are finally going away.

    • Nancy N. says:

      DNA is not a magic wand that you can wave to determine a person’s guilt or innocence. Not all cases involve DNA evidence. Even if there is DNA evidence, the evidence may not be definitive. Because the problem with DNA is that it just tells you that a person was at a place or in contact with an item, but not WHEN. I know someone who was exonerated of a murder conviction because of this. So finding DNA at or near a murder scene doesn’t necessarily mean the person is guilty, depending on the circumstances of the case.

  5. there are three sides to every story says:

    making room for the next 13 !

  6. Ayn Rand's Spleen says:

    From the tea party standpoint, this makes complete fiscal sense. Innocent inmates are executed before they can prove that they are in fact innocent, thereby making it impossible for them to sue the state for unlawful imprisonment. Florida saves money once again!

  7. Brian says:

    What did these people complain about before DNA evidence? I mean, do we have to put a hold on every single person convicted by a jury and sentenced to death until the frozen body of the victim can prove someone else killed him some 30 years from now? I mean, people were convicted of murder and sentenced to death since the beginning of our country. Back then, there were no appeals. You were hanged by the neck from a tree in front of the entire town…….sometimes within days of your conviction and sentence. I don’t see all these anti-death penalty whackos giving themselves paper cuts thumbing through the old files from the 1800s when horse thieves were sentenced to death! I mean…..maybe someone else’s DNA was on that rope? Why not check and see if all those people supposedly killed by Billy the Kid were actually killed by his gun? Seriously people……a jury convicted these people of murder, and they were given the sentence of death. Unless some grotesque error on behalf of the prosecution or defense can be proven, or DNA can prove their innocence within 5 years of conviction……….I say we strap em down and give em the needle! It is about time we stopped feeding and clothing and housing these animals with our tax dollars. Better yet………a firing squad outside the courthouse to carry out the death penalty upon sentencing would be even better. 6 bullets cost about $5……….20 years on death row cost about $1 million. Which do you find more financially conservative?

    • Nancy N. says:

      Yup, juries NEVER mistakes…so that means OJ Simpson and Casey Anthony are 100% not guilty, right?

      Arguing that people have been executed since the beginning of our country isn’t exactly an endorsement of our jury and execution system. Salem Witch Trials ring a bell?

      • opposediam says:

        To further your point Nancy….does it not bother you Brian that 1/3 of the people sentenced to death in Florida since the 70’s have been exonerated? Would it matter more to you if one of your parents were on death row and you knew they did not do it? Would you be hootin and hollerin for a firing squad if your Dad was on Death Row and he did not commit the crime?

  8. Merrill Shapiro says:

    This is great! Put more people on death row, execute more people and then Governor Rick doesn’t have to worry about finding them jobs!!
    Is it not Governor Rick who believes in bringing a “Culture of Life” to our state? Is this his idea of a “Culture of Life? Is it to execute as many people as quickly as possible?

  9. Amanda says:

    If they have exhausted ALL of their options, I don’t view it negatively. Once their appeals run out, the state needs to carry out the sentence handed down by the jury.

  10. Rick says:

    Flagler County’s first death row inmate is long, long overdue for his death sentence. (Louis gaskin). He has been on death row since 1990 for multiple murders. I think the only current member of the FCSO that was an active participant of the investigation is Commander Carman. Would like to see a follow-up story on that case.

  11. Rick says:

    Come to think of it, Commander Carman was also involved in the investigation on David Snellgrove, the second Flagler County death row conviction.

  12. Alfred E. Newman says:

    A pretty quote: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” –Ghandi
    Now on to the meat and potatoes!

    Killing people is a popular pursuit in Florida. It really is….
    It’s the state pastime!

    Murderous Florida folks:
    ~The criminal element who have no respect for life.
    ~Medicare thief governor who signs off on a swift execution package to “save taxpayer money” (ha ha)
    ~The morons who voted for the governor
    ~”Physicians” present at lethal injection procedures
    ~Jailers assisting in lethal injection procedures
    ~Judges and jurors that elect for death sentences
    ~Everyday people who delight in the execution of “killers”

    All have one thing in common: THEY ARE MURDERERS
    Murder is murder regardless of your garb or station in life.

    Florida, where Rick Scott was elected governor by the people.
    Rick Scott is a reflection of the voters.
    What an ugly reflection it is.

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