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Study calls for reform of death penalty

A team assembled by the American Bar Association concludes the state's system "is fraught with problems."

Published September 17, 2006

Florida's death penalty needs substantial reform to make it more fair and accurate, a study concludes.

An eight-member team assembled by the American Bar Association said in a 403-page report released today that the state should create a commission to study wrongful convictions and recommend methods to protect the innocent.

Florida leads the nation in exonerations, with 22 death row inmates released from prison since 1973.

After an 18-month review of the state's system, the team of legal experts made 11 unanimous recommendations.

"The death penalty process in Florida is fraught with problems," said team member Mark Schlakman, director of the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University. "If ultimately Florida ... is intent upon maintaining the death penalty, these are the kinds of issues and problems that must at some point be addressed."

The team took no stand for or against the death penalty but compared the state's procedures against 93 ABA standards and found Florida in compliance with only eight.

Members called for a new requirement of unanimous jury verdicts for death sentences, since Florida is the only state that allows a jury to decide by mere majority.

The report also recommended the state adopt standards ensuring a convicted person will have qualified attorneys who receive adequate payment during the appeals process; create statewide standards determining who can be charged with a capital crime; and establish new rules forbidding death sentences and executions of those with serious mental disabilities.

The report says the state should look more closely at racial and geographical disparities in the way capital punishment is being applied.

"Since Florida reinstated the death penalty in 1972, there have been no executions of white defendants for killing African-American victims," the team noted.

The group also requested new rules to make the clemency process more public and more systematic, such as requiring the Board of Executive Clemency to provide its reasons for denying clemency.

Gov. Jeb Bush's general counsel, Raquel Rodriguez, reviewed the report's clemency recommendations and said they would amount to the creation of another layer of appeals.

"Florida's clemency system is not designed to bestow innocence," Rodriguez wrote in a letter included in the report. "The idea behind clemency is to grant mercy and forgive."

Other members of the ABA team included chairman Christopher Slobogin, a University of Florida law professor; 18th Judicial Circuit Judge O.H. Eaton Jr.; UF psychology professor Mark Fondacaro; retired public defender Michael Minerva; former Florida Supreme Court Judge Leander J. Shaw Jr.; State Attorney Harry Shorstein; and Tampa lawyer Sylvia Walbolt.

In all, the American Bar Association plans to study the death penalty in 16 states.

It has completed reviews in Georgia, Alabama and Arizona and assessments are under way in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia.

While the ABA takes no position on the death penalty, it called for a nationwide moratorium on executions in 1997 until flaws in the system are identified and corrected.

Schlakman said he hopes the state takes the report's recommendations seriously and enacts changes so "innocent people are not put to death."

"If none of these recommendations are implemented," he said, "there are real questions whether the death penalty process in Florida is indeed fair and accurate."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at or (727) 893-8813.

[Last modified September 17, 2006, 00:23:48]

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