The Florida legislature passed a bill this week to impose new obstacles on challenging the death penalty in a state with the greatest number of exonerations. The bill’s intent was to shorten the time inmates wait for execution by imposing time limits for appeals and post-conviction motions, but DNA and other evidence often emerges years after a crime is committed – a concern that didn’t seem to faze Republican proponents of the bill who said swift justice is “not about guilt or innocence”:
“Is swift justice fair justice?” asked Democratic party Senator Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa attorney who voted against the bill. “We have seen cases where, years later, convicted people were exonerated,” she said. […]
But Republican Senator Rob Bradley said, “this is not about guilt or innocence, it’s about timely justice.” Frivolous appeals designed only for delay are not fair to victims and their families, he said. […]
“Only God can judge,” Matt Gaetz, a Republican who sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives, said last week during House debate. “But we sure can set up the meeting.”
Florida has more people on death row than any other state except California. Since the state reinstituted the death penalty in the 1970s, one fourth of those sentenced to death were later exonerated. The initial bill set strict timelines for post-conviction motions and appeals that would have likely led to the execution of many of these exonereees, who were facing a death sentence for well over ten years before new evidence emerged in their case. But after several amendments, the most recent version passed by both houses states only that capital cases should be resolved “as soon as possible.” The changes may have been motivated by concerns over a legal challenge. A similar 2000 law was struck down by the state Supreme Court as a violation of separation of powers. Perhaps more alarming than the text of the final version is the intent of the legislators who proposed it to facilitate quick deaths without regard to guilt or innocence, particularly in a system rife with error and racial bias.