THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
By: MARGIE MENZEL
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, June 14, 2013..........As expected, Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed the controversial "Timely Justice Act," a measure aimed at reducing delays in carrying out the death penalty in Florida.
Opponents have argued that the measure (HB 7083) will heighten the possibility of executing innocent people, but Scott rejected that argument as he signed it.
The Timely Justice Act "improves the orderly administration of capital punishment in our state," wrote the governor. "The bill does not increase the risk of executions of persons who did not commit murder."
The measure cuts the time between sentencing and execution by imposing strict time frames for appeals, post-conviction motions and reports on case progress.
In part, it requires the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court to notify the governor when a Death Row inmate's state and federal court appeals have been completed. The governor would then have 30 days to issue a death warrant if the executive clemency process has finished. The warrant would require that the execution be carried out within 180 days.
Sheila Hopkins of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes capital punishment, said the bill will put pressure on Scott and every governor who follows him into office.
"The bill says he shall sign the death warrant within a certain number of days of the executive clemency process being completed," Hopkins said. "He is being told that he is to do this."
But Scott argued that the measure is the object of "misrepresentation" by opponents.
"It does not 'fast-track' death-penalty cases through the court system," he wrote in his transmittal message on the measure. "It does not change the full panoply of judicial review available to death-sentenced inmates."
But House sponsor Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, posted a message Friday on Twitter that appeared to disagree with the governor's position about whether the bill will speed up executions.
Gaetz tweeted his thanks to Scott for signing the bill and noted, "Several on death row need to start picking out their last meals."
Scott's office helped draft the Timely Justice Act, according to Gaetz, who called it "a modest down payment on the reforms that we need to ensure that victims' families aren't waiting decades for justice."
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, issued a statement condemning the changes and charging Scott with signing the bill for political gain.
"Shame on the governor for putting the cynical calculation of his chances for re-election over ensuring that Florida will never execute an innocent person," Simon wrote. "Signing the 'Rush to Execute' bill (the grotesquely-named 'Timely Justice Act') will make this next year the deadliest and ugliest in the history of Florida?s death row."
If Scott signed the bill for political gain, however, he went against the tide of calls, letters and emails urging him to veto it. As of Thursday, his office had received 447 phone calls, with 438 opposed to the bill; 14 letters, with 13 opposed; and 14,571 emails, with 14,565 opposed.
Scott also ignored pleas from the Conference of Catholic Bishops. Michael McCarron, the conference director, wrote Scott last month, noting that the state had led the U.S. in death sentences handed down in 2012.
"This fact, coupled with Florida's other dubious distinction of leading the country in the number of death sentences overturned, compels our state to conduct a careful and deliberate review of the system," McCarron wrote Scott.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973 more Death Row inmates have been exonerated in Florida --- 24 -- than in any other state. But Scott's office disputed that any would have been executed if the Timely Justice Act had been in place. It said that none of the 24 would have been certified as eligible for a death warrant under the requirements of HB 7083, because none of them had exhausted their legal remedies.
The Timely Justice Act passed the House 84-34 and the Senate 28-10, mostly on party lines.
Lawmakers also voted down an effort to amend the bill to require the unanimous vote of a jury to impose the death penalty. Florida is the only state where a simple majority of a 12-person jury can sentence a defendant to death. In Alabama, a 10-2 vote is necessary, while the rest of the death-penalty states require the jury's decision to be unanimous.