Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Florida's Costly Timely Justice Act

While I was listening to This American Life on NPR this weekend, I heard a horrifying story about Florida's new Timely Justice Act.

The Act essentially speeds up the death penalty process. "It sets a deadline of 30 days for the governor to sign a death warrant once an inmate’s appeals become final—that is, after at least one round of state and federal appeals, and after a review by the governor for clemency. And once the governor signs the warrant, the Timely Justice Act says the execution must occur within 180 days."

To some, this may seem like a good thing if we look at the death penalty in purely economic terms. It is hugely expensive to put someone to death with all of the appeals and years and years of waiting on death row.

But it's not purely economic because 'death is different.' It is imperative that we go through the legal processes because we can't undo this punishment. "One of the enduring arguments in Supreme Court death penalty jurisprudence is that the death penalty is 'qualitatively different' from all other punishments in
ways that require extraordinary procedural protection against error."

What's so horrifying about Florida's new Act is that Florida has the highest death penalty error rate of any state in the nation. "Since the mid-1970s, the state has executed 77 people. Florida has also exonerated 24 people who’ve been sentenced to die—the most of any state. In other words, for every three inmates executed, one is set free."

One of the sponsors of the Act "insists that the Timely Justice Act won’t make it quicker and easier to execute someone who is innocent." According to the sponsor, "[w]hat it does is it puts the condemned and his or her lawyers on notice that if they have claims of innocence, they need to gather them and present them to a competent court of law, and do so in a timely manner."

The problem is that evidence of innocence can surface years after a conviction. "Take the case of Juan Melendez. He was on Florida’s death row for 16 years before a diligent defense investigator discovered a tape in the case files—a tape of another man confessing to the murder that no one had presented to the jury. Before the tape came out, the Florida Supreme Court rejected his appeals three times. If the Timely Justice Act had been in effect at the time, Melendez might easily have been executed. [There are] four more exonerees like that. These men spent between 13 and 21 years on death row. It took time and a lot of work to undo the mistakes that initially doomed them."

Slate -- Death Trap

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