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Bill to speed up death penalty could force 13 executions in 2013

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Updated: 4/29/2013 3:50 pm

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Palm Beach Post) -- Juan Roberto Melendez spent 17 years on Florida's Death Row after being wrongly convicted of the 1983 murder of Delbert Baker.

His conviction and death sentence were upheld by courts three times before Melendez was released from prison in 2002 after his attorneys discovered a taped confession by Baker's murderer.

But if changes lawmakers are considering for Florida's death penalty had been in place a decade ago, Melendez would have been executed.

"He would not have had time to find the evidence that led to his release," said Melendez's attorney, Marty McClain, who pursued his appeal.

The proposed "Timely Justice Act," which the House approved last week and the Senate could vote on as early as Monday, would create shorter time frames for death penalty appeals and take away the governor's discretion about when to order an execution.

"The last thing we want to do in Florida is execute an innocent person," Senate sponsor Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said Friday.

He said the changes will not take away anyone's rights to an appeal but "will make sure the death process moves forward in a timely manner."

Florida has 405 inmates awaiting execution, more than any other state except California, and it has the highest number of Death Row exonerees: 24.

The average length of time between sentencing and execution is 13 years in the state, but 10 men on Death Row have been there for more than three decades, including Paul Scott, convicted in 1979 of the Boca Raton murder of florist James Alessi.

Gov. Rick Scott has not indicated where he stands on the legislation, and his office declined comment last week.

But according to Scott's office, if the bill does become law, 13 Death Row inmates would fit its criteria, meaning the governor who has signed nine death warrants in the 29 months since he took office would have to order 13 executions within six months.

A faster-track death penalty process and additional executions - seemingly out of Scott's hands - could be a boon for the Republican in his 2014 re-election campaign, as Florida voters of all stripes show overwhelming support for the death penalty.

Experts on both sides of the death penalty agree that Florida's process is fraught with problems.

The Supreme Court, mindful of the latest bills, recently formed a committee of judges to again look into the capital punishment system and make its own recommendations.

"I know the court agrees with this mutual goal of moving these cases along fairly but expeditiously," said Steve Metz, the Florida Bar's liaison between the courts and the Legislature. "There are improvements that can be made."

But whether the revisions devised by Negron and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, will resolve them is uncertain.

The measures (HB 7083, SB 1750) would create tighter time frames for appeals and all the post-conviction motions that begin after the Florida Supreme Court upholds death sentences in initial appeals. They also would require the governor to order an execution within six months of the exhaustion of state and federal appeals and the conclusion of the capital clemency process.

And they would heighten the legal standards for pleading certain arguments, make it harder for inmates to fire their lawyers and de-privatize a pilot program in the northern region created by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003 to handle capital cases. Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero had blasted the quality of some the briefs in those cases as "some of the worst lawyering I've seen."

The House approved its version by an 84-34 vote Thursday, with Lake Worth Democratic Rep. Dave Kerner, a lawyer and former police officer, joining Republicans in favor of the bill.

During debate on the floor Thursday, Gaetz pointed to Jeff Nelson and his family, who have waited 32 years for his sister's killer to be put to death. Nelson's 10-year-old sister, Elisa, was abducted and killed in 1980 by Larry Eugene Mann, who was put to death by lethal injection earlier this month. Mann was sentenced in 1981.

Gaetz said that his process will more effectively and efficiently deliver justice.

"Only God can judge. But we can sure set up the meeting," Gaetz said.

But Sandy D'Alemberte, a former head of the American Bar Association who has worked on capital cases, said: "The Legislature is just foolish to be working in this area. This is an area where courts have done their best to get it right. The process of post-conviction proceedings has saved us from several disasters along the way. We make a lot of mistakes."

Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Richard Dieter said if the bill becomes law, Florida would be moving in the opposite direction of most other states.

Eighteen states no longer have the death penalty. Maryland this year abolished the death penalty, joining Illinois and Connecticut, which did away with it last year. Other state legislatures are considering imposing more safeguards to prevent the innocent from being executed or even convicted of capital crimes.

Nationally, over the past 20 years, there has been a 75 percent reduction in death sentences, and executions have dropped by half, Dieter said.

Part of the reason capital cases take so long to process in Florida is there are so many of them, Dieter said. The complex cases are a strain on judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers.

"It takes time to find new witnesses. It takes time to get a good lawyer on the case and re-investigate. But certainly the shorter the time the greater the risk," he said.

Focusing on the time it takes to execute inmates alone won't make the system better, said Mark Shlakman, senior program direct at the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Rights.

"Some elements of the bill address long-standing problems, but there are many more that must be addressed to minimize the risk that Florida would execute an innocent person," he said.
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