Florida’s Timely Justice Act: far from “timely” for death row inmates

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It has been more than 30 years since a Florida governor used executive clemency to commute death sentence. Now, under a new law, a revised “timely” clemency process could actually delay many Death Row executions.

On Friday, Florida Supreme Court Clerk Thomas Hall gave Scott a certified list of 132 convicts that are “warrant ready” to some extent, as part of the “Timely Justice Act.” The Act passed the GOP-led legislature last session and signed by Gov. Rick Scott in June reports Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida.

The list of convicts includes Juan Chavez, who received the death penalty 18 years ago for the murder of 9-year-old Jimmy Ryce in Redland.

Only after clemency is complete, a 30-day grace period kicks in for Scott to sign the death warrant. The problem is that less than 20 of them are at any point in the clemency process. Not one Death Row inmate is prepared for an execution order, since the only way to complete executive clemency is with a signed death warrant from the governor. 

It is classic circular reasoning — only when clemency is complete, the governor signs the death warrant. However, clemency is not complete until the governor signs a death warrant. In addition, the Supreme Court clerk under the new rule must submit to the governor a list of certified Death Row inmates where both initial state and federal appeals have been exhausted.

“With that broad of an interpretation, one would wonder why the governor signed the bill in the first place. It would seem to be nothing more than kowtowing to his constituency without any substance,” Stephen Harper told the News Service of Florida.

Harper is a law professor who teaches about the death penalty at Florida International University. He also is in charge of the school’s death penalty clinic, representing numerous clients charged with capital crimes.

The result of the “Timely Justice Act” is that it not only makes executions untimely, but it also significantly slows down the process, something quite the opposite of the intent of lawmakers who drafted the legislation.

“This could create an unnecessary constitutional mess between the governor, the Legislature and the Florida Supreme Court as it’s being litigated right now. And I have concern that the governor’s counsel’s interpretation of this law may not be accurate,” Harper added.

Since executive clemency is confidential, according to Kam, there is no way to find out the first death warrants signed under the new process.

The 132 convicts eligible for the new warrant system make up one-quarter of the 405 Florida Death Row inmates. Many are in the process of “successive” appeals, filed when there is further evidence found (such as DNA). The law does not take in account these prisoners, or those whom the U.S. Supreme Court finds issues such as juveniles exempted for the death penalty.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled on one such appeal, in the case of Paul Beasley Johnson in 2009. Justices stayed Johnson’s execution, considering “significant issues” that arose in the appeal.

Attorney Marty McClain, who represented Johnson and other Death Row inmates, is one of more than 150 lawyers challenging the constitutionality of the new law before the Florida Supreme Court. The lawyers assert the “Timely Justice Act” violates the separation of powers and convicts’ constitutional rights to equal protection and due process.

“My expectation was that they wouldn’t send the list given that we were claiming that it was unconstitutional for the Legislature to be directing somebody in the judicial branch, the clerk, to do something,” McClain told the News Service of Florida.

“And we also wanted to have the right to see if our client was being listed and explain why he shouldn’t be or that there wasn’t something pending. I’m kind of surprised by their action.” 

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.