Exonerated Inmates: Florida Bill To Speed Up Executions Would Have Cost Us Our Lives

Several exonerated men whose innocence of murder was proven years after they were sentenced to death are imploring Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) not to sign a Florida bill that would set automatic timelines for imposing the death penalty, and likely would have resulted in the execution of these and other innocent people.

The bill, known as the “Timely Justice Act,” was passed last month amid legislator sentiments that “timely justice” is more important than “guilt or innocence,” with one legislator saying, “Only God can judge. But we can sure set up the meeting.”

Now, as the deadline approaches for Gov. Scott to sign the bill, former inmates who escaped the death penalty are coming forward to demonstrate the extraordinary costs of the law’s passage, in a state with the highest number of exonerations, and more people on death row than any state but California.

“If Governor Scott would just sit with me and others like me, I know he will veto this bill that, if it had been law, would have ended my life – I am innocent,” said Seth Penalver, who sat on death row for 18 years before exonerating evidence emerged. “If he signs this bill into law, I fear other people who are innocent like me, will be unjustly executed by the State of Florida.”

Exoneree Juan Melendez wrote in the Huffington Post:

The “Timely Justice Act” would speed up a system we know has already sent innocent men, like myself, to death row. Some of these prisoners may be men like me, who have exhausted their legal appeals, yet keep trying to find a way to prove their innocence.

In multiple cases of current death row prisoners, we don’t know exactly what the legal claims are. Some of the men on Florida’s death row ran out of legal options simply because their attorneys missed filing deadlines.

In those instances, no court had the opportunity to evaluate the claims and determine whether they have merit. How can we possibly justify speeding up the execution of prisoners in those cases?

According to logic of the “Timely Justice Act,” any prisoner who has exhausted his appeals and been through a clemency process has had every opportunity and is ready for an execution date, regardless of the specific questions and issues that surround his case.

I am living proof that each case is unique and that the system must allow ample time for the truth to emerge.
Given Florida’s troubling track record on wrongful convictions, this legislation ensures the unthinkable — the execution of an innocent person.

Although the final version of the bill eliminated timelines for filing appeals and post-conviction motions, it would require the governor to issue an execution warrant to those who have exhausted their legal remedies within 30 days, and require execution within 180 days of the warrant. The problem is that when it comes to the death penalty, cases are reopened years later when new evidence finally emerges or defendants obtain the resources to uncover new evidence. In several recent instances, crucial errors in FBI analysis were not revealed until years after hundreds of individuals’ cases had been completed and decided.

Just this week in Florida, a man who was sentenced to death in 2006 is just now requesting a retrial, after he obtained lawyers in 2011 that secured testing of crucial DNA evidence.