Death Penalty: As Other States Phase It Out, Florida Ramps It Up

Last week, Maryland became the 18th state to repeal the death penalty, and the sixth to do so in as many years. This news was widely reported and is part of what death penalty proponents might call a growing trend, as younger Americans are more likely to oppose capital punishment than older Americans and new death row sentences are down to record low numbers. Yet we've heard comparatively little about a very different trend in Florida, where the state has decided not only to reinforce the death penalty, but to speed up the process.  

Florida's capital-punishment system has long been in need of reform, as it leads the nation both in the number of new death-row sentences (with 21 new defendants scheduled to die last year alone, more than double its closest contender) and in the number of exonerations. In 2012 Seth Penalver, a 39-year-old South Florida man — who had been in prison for 18 years and was sentenced to die in 1999 — was acquitted of a triple murder after the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new trial. In February 2013, Paul Howell, a 47-year-old Floridian who was on death row since 1992 for killing a state trooper, was granted a stay of execution by a federal appeals court just one day before he was to be executed by lethal injection. One of Mr. Howell's attorneys argued that mitigating evidence, including Mr. Howell's history of mental-health issues, warranted a reduced sentence, but the Florida Supreme Court rejected his appeal and the governor refused to issue a stay.  

As it turns out, the long delays experienced by Mr. Penalver and Mr. Howell tend to be the rule in Florida rather than the exception. Although less than the national average of nearly 15 years, the average wait time on death row in Florida is 13.22 years in a system that often costs over $1 million per inmate. Of Florida's 404 inmates, 155 have been in custody for more than 20 years and 10 have been in custody for more than 35 years (the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976).  

Given the delays, costs, and burdens of a crowded capital-punishment system, Florida's governor and legislators have recently been taking steps to speed things up and, in the process, are eviscerating any remaining legal protections for death-row inmates.  The Florida Commission on Capital Cases was created in 1997 to oversee Florida's death-row system (which is the only such system in the country that does not require a unanimous decision by juries to execute defendants), but in 2011 Florida's lawmakers quietly eliminated the commission to save $400,000.  

Then, last week Republicans in the Florida House and Senate passed the Timely Justice Act of 2013, which among other things prohibits courts from granting certain time extensions during the post-conviction appeals process and bars post-conviction motions that aren't filed within specified time periods. In short, while inmates would surely spend far less time on death row, wrongly convicted inmates like Mr. Penalver would also have a far harder time being exonerated — a deeply troubling outcome in a state rife with decades-old cases tried before the widespread use of DNA evidence. The bill now heads to Governor Rick Scott's desk for his signature.  One would hope he realizes that unjust outcomes don't become just if they happen quickly. Instead, precision should prevail over speed when lives are at stake.