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Limits to death row appeals rejected

Florida's high court rules that a new law designed to speed up executions encroaches on its turf.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- In a ruling likely to add to the tension between the state Supreme Court and the Legislature, justices on Friday unanimously struck down key portions of a new death penalty appeals law designed to speed up executions.

The law, passed during a special session in January, is an 'unconstitutional encroachment on this court's exclusive power to adopt rules for the practice and procedure in all courts," the court ruled.

The court also found that portions of the law violated defendants' rights to due process and equal protection.

In a separate opinion, however, the court offered its own proposals to shorten the time between sentencing and executions.

'We have attempted to strike a proper balance between the state's legitimate interest in the prompt and efficient administration of justice in capital cases and the capital defendant's legitimate interest that the ... process be fair, just and humane," Chief Justice Major Harding wrote.

But Gov. Jeb Bush and leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature said the court's solutions were woefully inadequate. Inmates now spend an average of 14 years on death row before they are executed. Bush said the court's proposed changes were 'riddled with loopholes and exceptions that will most likely lead to more delay."

'On behalf of victims' families and the people of this state, I remain steadfastly committed to finding ways to have all death penalty appeals resolved within five years," Bush said.

State Rep. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who sponsored the death penalty appeals law, said the ruling will give new momentum to his plan to amend the state Constitution to strip the court of much of its authority. Before lawmakers head home in May, Crist vowed to pass a resolution putting the plan before voters.

'If the Florida Constitution gives the Florida Supreme Court this much power, then the Florida Constitution needs to be amended," Crist said.

'How much longer can we continue to tip the scales of justice in favor of convicted murderers and against law-abiding citizens?" asked House Speaker John Thrasher.

Democrats said the court's opinion only confirmed what they have been saying all along.

'Someone else has now told them that they were stupid and wrong," said state Rep. Sally Heyman, D-North Miami Beach. 'The people of Florida should be angry -- angry at the wasted time and money that we could have spent helping the developmentally disabled or fighting crime instead of on bad lawmaking that was never constitutional."

Lawyers who represent death row inmates had challenged the new law, saying it could lead to the deaths of the wrongfully convicted. They also asked Harding and Justice Charles Wells to recuse themselves after questions were raised about whether the two justices played a role in shaping the death penalty law. Both justices refused.

Harding wrote Friday's opinion and Wells wrote a separate opinion that concurred.

On Friday, many death row attorneys were breathing sighs of relief.

'All the Legislature wanted was to make sure these people got killed quickly, irrespective of their innocence," said Chet Kaufman, an assistant public defender who specializes in death penalty cases. 'The court's proposal is certainly more reasonable than what the Legislature wanted to do."

But some lawyers were already worried about the fight to come. Key items on the Republican agenda have ended up getting thrown out by state courts, and anti-judicial rhetoric has been running high.

Richard McFarlain, a lobbyist for the Florida Bar who is trying to stave off attacks on the court, said the court was duty-bound to strike down the new law to protect the constitutionally mandated separation of power among Florida's three branches of government. But he said the court tried to do so in a way that would avoid all-out war.

'The court has some inkling that legislators may not like this, and they seem to have gone out of their way to say that the court has the same goal as they do," McFarlain said.

'We have a great deal of public education to do to tell the public that the courts do not exist to do the will of the majority of the people," said Stephen Hanlon, a lawyer at the state's largest law firm, Holland & Knight, who does pro-bono work on death penalty cases. 'Their principal role is to defend the Constitution."

Lawmakers passed the new Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000 in January. It threw out the state Supreme Court's rules governing death penalty appeals and attempted to repace those rules with much stricter guidelines.

The Supreme Court's alternative plan does not go nearly as far as the Legislature's.

Lawmakers wanted to place an absolute limit on the number of appeals a death row inmate could file in state court.

Once that cap was reached, additional appeals were prohibited with one very narrow exception for cases where lawyers found new evidence of innocence.

The Supreme Court rejected those limits, which critics argued could lead to executions of the innocent. That means death row inmates can continue to file motions, such as those alleging new evidence of their innocence, claims that a prosecutor improperly withheld evidence, or allegations that a lawyer was ineffective, as long as the motions meet certain requirements.

Lawmakers also wanted to place strict time limits governing when appeals could be filed. Within six months of filing a first, direct appeal to the state Supreme Court, inmates would have had to file a second -- and in most cases final -- round of 'post-conviction" appeals. This is what is known as a dual-track system, and it is designed to get all phases of appeals moving simultaneously to reduce delay.

The court proposed a modified dual-track system requiring that a post-conviction lawyer be appointed within 15 days of a death sentence. The post-conviction lawyer can begin work while another lawyer handles the direct appeal.

But post-conviction appeals do not have to be filed until 180 days after the state Supreme Court rules on the direct appeal.

The court also proposed creating a new right for death row defendants, mandating that judges must hear evidence on every post-conviction motion.

The justices argued that many judges improperly deny such hearings, causing 'years of delay" as the denial is makes its way to the state Supreme Court.

'This court has been compelled to reverse a significant number of cases due to this failure," the justices wrote. 'When a case gets reversed for this reason, the entire system is put on hold."

The court will hold hearings on its proposal.

But before the court will change the current system, justices told lawmakers they must do their part. The court's opinion calls for a change to the public records law to allow post-conviction lawyers access to public records such as those compiled during a criminal investigation.

The opinion also said it is 'critical" that the Legislature adequately fund the lawyers who defend death row inmates and the justice system that handles their appeals.

'Along with the input of the Legislature, this court is boarding a ship to set sail on a course of reform," the court said. 'Without the necessary funding, the ship is destined to sink."

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