Florida Legal Experts Identify Serious Problems With The Fairness And Accuracy Of State Death Penalty System
CHICAGO, Sept. 17, 2006 – A team of leading Florida lawyers today unanimously proposed measures that would improve the fairness and accuracy of the state’s death penalty system, including recommendations to decrease the number of wrongful convictions, provide qualified and well-compensated counsel to all death-sentenced inmates, and increase the role of juries in sentencing decisions. The proposals are part of a report based on the team’s examination of Florida’s death penalty system.
The team conducted the study under the auspices of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, which is housed in the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities. Its report and recommendations have not been presented to the ABA House of Delegates and so do not constitute ABA policy. The ABA neither supports nor opposes the death penalty, but it does urge a moratorium on executions in each death penalty jurisdiction until fairness and due process are assured.
The Florida team unanimously agreed that the state fails to comply or is only in partial compliance with many of the protocols developed by the ABA to assess death penalty systems. It specifically identified 11 problem areas in the state system, including: the high number of death-row exonerations (22 since 1973), the failure to ensure that lawyers assigned to represent capital defendants during the post-conviction process are qualified and adequately compensated, the continued existence of racial and charging disparities in capital sentencing, the fact that unanimity is not required in jury sentencing decisions, the failure to give sufficient weight to the mitigating effects of serious mental disability, and the level of secrecy surrounding the clemency process.
Professor Christopher Slobogin of the University of Florida Frederic G. Levin College of Law chaired the team, which included a Florida circuit court judge, a State Attorney, a former Florida Supreme Court justice, a former public defender, a social scientist with a law degree, a program director for the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University, and another Florida lawyer.
“Our justice system seeks to provide a fair way of making accurate decisions about innocence and guilt,” said ABA President Karen J. Mathis. “In death penalty cases, where people’s lives are on the line, it is particularly important that we do all we can to ensure that the system is fair. I commend the careful and thorough work of the Florida team and hope their recommendations will help improve the administration of justice in the state.”
“Despite the best efforts of many legislators, judges and lawyers, much more needs to be done to ensure that Florida’s death penalty system avoids executing the innocent,” said Slobogin. “Florida has released more people from death row than any other state, which suggests the system has serious problems. It is small comfort that no one recently executed in Florida has been proven innocent, since some of them were not able to present all the proof they had and efforts at exoneration usually end once the person is dead.”
In assessing the state system, the team measured Florida law, procedure and practices against protocols developed by the ABA to evaluate fairness and accuracy. It found Florida is in compliance with 8 protocols, in partial compliance with 36, and not in compliance with 23. For 25 of the protocols, the team was unable to obtain enough information to assess compliance, and one protocol was not applicable.
The team’s specific recommendations to improve the fairness and accuracy of Florida’s death penalty system include: creating a commission to investigate wrongful convictions in capital cases and propose methods to prevent them; creating a second commission to review claims of factual innocence; adopting new standards governing the qualification and compensation of post-conviction attorneys; developing protocols governing the capital charging decision; redrafting jury sentencing instructions; requiring unanimous jury verdicts for death sentences; further studying racial disparities in capital punishment; creating new standards for the legal relevance of serious mental disability at trial and after sentencing; and establishing new rules to make the clemency process more transparent.
Florida is the fourth state assessed under the ABA project. Assessments in Georgia, Alabama and Arizona also are complete and are accessible on the ABA’s Web site. Other assessments are being conducted in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia. Neither the protocols nor individual state assessment reports have been adopted by the ABA House of Delegates.
With more than 413,000 members, the American Bar Association is the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law in a democratic society.