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In Florida, Timely Injustice

Memo Pad National News

In Florida, Timely Injustice


At great political peril, George Ryan did the right thing.

Not to canonize the man. After all, the then-governor of Illinois was later imprisoned on corruption charges.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, in 2000, stung that 13 inmates had been exonerated and freed from death row in the previous 23 years, Ryan committed an act of profound moral courage, imposing a moratorium on capital punishment. In 2003, in the waning days of his term, he one-upped himself, commuting every death sentence in his state.

Recalling what Gov. George Ryan once did provides interesting context as Floridians and death penalty opponents around the country wait to see what Gov. Rick Scott will do.

Florida’s chief executive has on his desk awaiting his signature — or, dare we hope, his veto — a piece of legislation called the Timely Justice Act, passed by his state legislature in the apparent belief Florida is not killing people fast enough.

There are 404 people awaiting execution in Florida. We learn from a report by my colleague, Mary Ellen Klas, that 155 of them have been there longer than 20 years, and 10 have been there longer than 35 years. The average wait: 13 years.

The act would require the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days after a review by the state Supreme Court. Execution would have to take place within 180 days. Additionally, the bill bars attorneys from using certain defense strategies. Granted, it also contains provisions favorable to inmates, including one penalizing lawyers who provide ineffective counsel, but that fig leaf does not mitigate the danger of a bill that, in effect, creates a fast track to the death chamber.

This measure, I feel constrained to point out, is brought to you by the same legislative body that brought you the ill-conceived Stand Your Ground law that has lately led people to call Florida the “gunshine state.” This latest sop to frontier justice is necessary, we’re told, because, as an editorial by Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers puts it, delayed executions are “an affront to justice — especially for victims’ families.”

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. Dominick Vila May 20, 2013

    And this from the folks that believe the Ten Commandments should be posted in front of every state government building and school. Should we assume there are invisible iterations under Thou Shall Not Kill?
    I live in Florida, and nothing our state government says and does surprises me anymore.

    1. FredAppell May 20, 2013

      You have my sincerest condolences Dominick. There sure has been a lot of crazy headlines coming out of your state the last bunch of years.

      1. Dominick Vila May 20, 2013

        Transitioning from California and Maryland to Florida was not easy…

    2. sigrid28 May 20, 2013

      Florida’s unfairness sweepstakes: Ballot box? Wait forever to vote. Capital Conviction? Can’t hang soon enough.

      1. Allan Richardson June 26, 2013

        And there is a connection between them!

    3. Jim Myers May 20, 2013

      Dominick, you have a moral obligation to bring some sense of sanity to politics in Florida.

      As much as you must hate the thought, not running for office is a concession to the powers that captivate the immoral right.

      You clearly have the backbone to confront the idiots who thing Rick Scott is the savior of the right wing.

      It’s time to help the people who need someone of your caliber.

      1. idamag May 20, 2013

        Jim, I have lived among whack jobs a long time. No amount of rational thinking or facts are going to change them.

  2. disqus_ivSI3ByGmh May 20, 2013

    Florida State Legislature must be tired of Texas having the record for the number of questionable executions, where a preponderance of evidence casts doubt on the conviction. Either that or there are a bunch of prosecutors and former prosecutors, like Tony Loe of Broward County, who are worried about their convictions not standing up to review.

  3. tobyspeeks May 20, 2013

    Rick Scott is pure evil, but for most of the others like Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, the little wiener, Santorum, who brought his dead baby home from the hospital and others truly believe they are doing their god’s work ergo whatever they do is right or at least excusable. As for the innocents who are put to death? Collateral damage.

  4. Randy Grein May 20, 2013

    When I discuss this with most conservatives (that support it) the answer is ‘they had to have done something wrong to be arrested’. That’s it – the entire case revolves around the casual assumption that police never get it wrong, and even if they do this is punishment for another transgressio. Like many other bedrock beliefs this assumption of guilt is held a priori and reasons are window dressing. There’s no way to argue with this.

    The remaining supporters generally just need education about the sheer number of erroneous convictions, and who they are.

    1. Jim Myers May 20, 2013

      Years ago, and I do not remember where I read it, there was an article regarding military justice.

      The article compared the conviction rate for military Court Martial with a Civilian conviction rate.

      I do not remember the numbers, but the Civilian conviction rate was far lower than the Military conviction rate. I am pretty sure the Military conviction rate was above 90%.

      When the presiding Judge, a Colonel, was asked why the conviction rate was so high in his Court, his reply was that the defendant must have been guilty, or he would not have been prosecuted in the first place.

    2. Allan Richardson June 26, 2013

      The same people who believe the police NEVER get it wrong when they arrest an “underclass” person believe the IRS is biased when their tax shelter scheme is audited, and believe “government cannot do anything right.” EXCEPT decide which minority person to kill next. Unless they “outsource” that decision to a neighborhood watch volunteer.

  5. tdm3624 May 20, 2013

    If we do away with the death penalty for fear of executing an innocent person, then we have to be prepared as a society to pay the cost of that person’s incarceration for the rest of their life. I hate the thought of having an innocent person die, but then I balance that with the thought of some murderer (like the Boston bomber) living out the rest of their life while their victims don’t have that option. Doesn’t seem fair either way.

    1. RobertCHastings May 20, 2013

      Please look it up in a reliable source. The cost of prosecuting a death-penalty case, housing the prisoner through all of his legally-mandated appeals,and finally executing him, takes a lot of time, and costs the state MUCH more than pursuing wither a plea bargain or a lesser charge than capital murder. It is cheaper anywhere in the country to pursue a second-degree murder charge with a penalty of life- without-the-chance-of-parole than it is to pursue a death penalty, and that includes keeping the convicted person in prison for the rest of his life.

      1. tdm3624 May 20, 2013

        Thank you. This is a relatively new issue for me so I don’t know a lot about it yet.

        1. RobertCHastings May 21, 2013

          If you can find it in your library, check out “The Autobiography of an Execution” by David R. Dow, a defense attorney. It shows a capital offense case from an entirely new angle.

  6. Allan Richardson May 20, 2013

    How about a law making it a capital offense for anyone in the chain of “custody” in a capital case to sign off on executing anyone who later turns out to have been innocent? Maybe prosecutors, judges, appellate judges, and governors would be a bit more CAREFUL if their own lives were on the line?

    1. RobertCHastings May 20, 2013

      Sounds like a reasonable idea, which should make it easier down the road to find who was actually at fault. And ALL states whould be required, under FEDERAL law to have a system of compensation for those wrongly convicted. Some states make no such provision.

  7. Siegfried Heydrich May 20, 2013

    I would like to also see a law that automatically sentences a prosecuting attorney to serve every day of a sentence – in the same cell – that was imposed on a prisoner who was subsequently exonerated. If a prosecutor succeeds in having a prisoner executed who was subsequently exonerated, the prosecutor should be executed as well, after waiting on death row for as long as it took for the prisoner to wait for death.

    I have seen far too many prosecutors ride a popular case to political advantage and then had it discovered that the prosecutor railroaded him. In the county where I live, we have had three capital cases overturned when it was discovered that the prosecuting attorney cheated, withheld exculpatory evidence, and in one case, simply manufactured evidence. And the cops are equally corrupt; they have no interest in ‘justice’ whatsoever, and are only interested in closing cases and promotions resulting from showy cases. I’m sorry, I have absolutely zero confidence in the criminal justice system at all. Especially in Florida.

    1. RobertCHastings May 20, 2013

      Amen, Siegfried! Losing their right to practice law is entirely too easy a penalty, unless the proceeds from their practice go to those they have improprely put in prison. They should forfeit ALL properties, be exposed to the derision and ridicule of the public, and suffer untold indignities.

  8. John Shutz May 20, 2013

    I agree with Barbara. I’m a Progressive in most political aspects, but very conservative when it comes to crime and punishment. I suppose it has something to do with the fact I’m a retired police officer. The thought of putting someone to death who is innocent does bother me tremendously, but I think the “questionable” cases don’t make it that far, the ones without good solid evidence and solely relying on eyewitness testimony. We know how that can be erroneous especially under stress. However, I’m from the school where the viciousness of some of these individuals should be met with swift justice and not be subject of years and millions of dollars of frivolous appeals that our justice system allows. Obviously my beliefs are based on knowing the real facts of many of these murder cases and those facts will turn your stomach like no other event in your life. Just listening to the pleas, the agony and torture inflicted on those poor girls kidnapped off the streets many years ago in Los Angeles solidified my belief in the death penalty. It was the infamous “plyers killers” of the late 70s who taped the subsequent events so they could satisfy their sick and perverted desire to inflict the most pain and suffering on girls that could have easily been one of my daughters. The sounds of their voices still haunts me to this day and on the day the tapes I couldn’t listen to them any more and it was clear the instructor sensed that of the rest of the students so he turned the recorders off. That was at the LAPD Detective school in 1980. This was just one of the hundreds of similar crimes perpetuated by an ever increasing element in our society that makes fear of terrorists a low priority in my opinion. When are people going to wake up and realize they ARE the real home grown terrorists? From a prosecution standpoint a very powerful tool is the death penalty sentence. If you ever watch the late night detective/investigation shows you notice how many of the cases are moved to conclusion with the death penalty charge being used as a lever to obtain more information from the suspect, information that would otherwise not have been available. I don’t like the idea of using this tactic wrongly by taking the death penalty off the table when the suspect clearly deserves it. But to take this very useful bargaining chip away from the prosecution will no doubt lead to justice denied for many other victims under the umbrella of evil perpetrators. I call for the swift administration of the death penalty and to clean up the maze of lawyer induced appeals that in many cases are used simply to grind the system to a halt. The unspoken victims are what matters here.

    1. RobertCHastings May 20, 2013

      Please take a look at organizations like “The Innocence Project” which over the past 10 -15 years has exonerated over 100 death-row inmates, solely on DNA evidence. They do not take cases in which other evidence is in question, although some other organizations do. For all too many reasons, it is entirely too easy for an innocent person to be convicted, ESPECIALLY if that person fits a certain socio-ethnic profile.

  9. RobertCHastings May 20, 2013

    We can only hope that those who operate organizations like The Innocence project are in on the petitioning of Governor Scott. In the brief few years of its existence, The Innocence Project alone has exonerated over one hundred death-row inmates, having their convictions overturned and records expunged, simply because the evidence used to convict every one of them was proven to be wrong. Since the Project began, Ryan has not been the only governor to seek a moratorium, and the reasons for this are, basically, that the Death Penalty is not fairly administered and in all too many cases incorrect or inadequate evidence is used to convict disadvantaged defendants who must rely on second-rate public defenders. In many other cases where adequate evidence does not exist overly zealous police, forensic pathologists, or prosecutors manufacture it, or withhold exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys. Anyone who thinks he can say with any degree of certainty that NO ONE who is innocent of a crime for which he was convicted has ever been executed is lacking in any kind of discriminating intelligence. Once the death-row inmate is executed, there is no further recourse, the case is, literally, dead.
    Over the past several years, a number of well-respected crime labs have been shown to be more than just negligent. This put into question thousands of cases handled by the labs and the forensics experts working in them. Just a few days ago we read of a New York policeman with a stellar record of arrests and convictions who was shown to have manufactured evidence, thus jeopardizing 1) the cases themselves, 2) the moral standing of the state and the prosecutors involved, 3) the lives of at least one hundred possibly innocent men and women.
    While few people have any sympathy for people on death row, ASSUMING that if they are there, they are there because they are guilty.
    In addition to the above, it has been shown, clearly, over the past few years that eye-witness testimony is, at best, questionable, a fact that has lead over the past five years to many police departments changing how they handle the picture-generated lineups. All too frequently, eyewitnesses picked the picture of someone they ween’t absolutely sure of,simply to please the investigating officer, and their mistakes may well have been compounded by the officer’s complimenting them on their choice. This type of testimony is wrong much more than it is right. The forensic artists who have a palette of facial characteristics which they use to draw suspects have beenproven wrong in their approach, simply because people remember the WHOLE face, not its components.
    Should Governor Scott agree to the bill as presented, there is virtually no chance that the State of Florida will NOT execute at least one innocent person.

    1. sigrid28 May 21, 2013

      Great post about an injustice that cannot be alleviated soon enough. I hope everyone on this comment thread reads it.

  10. Allan Richardson June 26, 2013

    I propose a Constitutional amendment to punish government officials (prosecutors, judges, and GOVERNORS) for allowing an innocent person to be executed. If the condemned persons family, or interested parties, can prove AFTER his death that he WAS INNOCENT, then all those officials involved in that case that did not try to stop it would be guilty of CAPITAL MURDER themselves. How much of a hurry would they be in to kill somebody if they knew their OWN lives were in jeopardy if they got it wrong?

    Another proposal that might save the lives of those officials would be to prohibit the prosecution in ANY criminal case from spending more to prosecute the case than the defendant can afford to spend on his defense, with the help of either public defenders or persons offering pro bono legal or investigative services. An appeals court would be able to use the lack of defense funds to match prosecution funds as prima facie proof that the trial was not fair, and toss out the conviction.


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