Two former death row inmates who have since been exonerated urged Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday to veto legislation that would expedite the state's capital punishment process, worrying it will condemn some innocent men to death.
"If (this bill) had been law, it would have ended my life. I am innocent," said Seth Penalver, who was exonerated after 18 years in prison.
Penalver and Herman Lindsey, who was freed after three years on death row, pleaded with the Republican governor to grant him a meeting, saying at least 13 people currently on death row have exhausted their post-conviction appeals and gone through the clemency process. They fear that if Scott signs the Timely Justice Act, the governor could be putting innocent inmates to death without ample time and adequate assurance that they truly are guilty. The two appeared at a news conference Wednesday.
The bill, which was recently passed by the Republican-led Legislature, essentially minimizes the time between sentencing and execution by creating tighter timeframes for appeals and post-conviction motions and by imposing reporting requirements on case progress. The measure also re-establishes a separate agency for north Florida to provide appellate-level legal representation to inmates sentenced to death, and requires them to "pursue all possible remedies in state court."
It would also require a governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of a State Supreme Court review of a capital conviction. The state would be required to execute the defendant within 180 days of the warrant.
The law comes as Florida's capital punishment process has come under intense scrutiny and has been criticized for allowing some condemned inmates to languish for decades on death row. A New York Times editorial published Tuesday said the bill was "grotesquely named."
Florida has exonerated 24 men on death row since 1973, more than any other state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Florida now has 405 inmates on death row, more than any other state except California. It takes an average of 13 years for an inmate to move from sentencing to execution.
Penalver hired a private investigator and found new evidence, which he said prosecutors had hid from him, that pointed to other suspects. He was freed in December 2012, after "crying like a baby" and dropping to his knees in prayer in the courtroom as jurors exonerated him on three first-degree murder convictions, armed robbery and armed burglary. After 18 years in prison, the first thing he vowed to do was to find a church. It was 3:30 a.m. in downtown Fort Lauderdale, but Penalver, now 40, found a church and prayed. Then, he hit the beach, longing to see palm trees and the ocean.
Lindsey said many attorneys handling death row cases are underpaid and don't have the resources to conduct extensive investigations for new evidence.
Critics worry that DNA evidence might be introduced later that proves a condemned prisoner's innocence.
"You're willing to sign a bill for the death warrants, but you're not willing to take a look at what is really happening," Lindsey said, referring to Scott.
The governor has given little indication about where he stands on the bill, but his spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, said Wednesday, "We want to hear from Floridians about the merits of this legislation, which our general counsel's office is currently reviewing."
Supporters of the measure say that numerous people have sat on Florida's death row for longer than 30 years, making a mockery of the justice system and further hurting the victims' families because they have to wait for years for closure.
Mark Schlackman, senior program director for Florida State University's Center for Advancement of Human Rights, said the bill was ill-conceived but has also been mischaracterized by some advocacy groups. He said it wouldn't necessarily mean immediate death warrants for a set number of inmates.
He also said the portion of the law requiring the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of review is moot because the governor's clemency powers cannot be abridged.
Schlackman hopes the governor will sign the bill as a signal that the state is open to more meaningful reforms going forward, including unanimous jury legislation. Under state law, a jury now only needs a majority, not a unanimous recommendation, for a death sentence. He pressed for similar reforms that were pointed out in a scathing 2006 report by the American Bar Association.
"The concerns about undue delay in the process shouldn't be ignored but they should be cast within the larger context of comprehensive review of Florida's entire death penalty process to minimize risk that innocent people be put to death and that was not the emphasis of this bill," he said.