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    A Times Editorial

    Justice enhanced

    The Legislature has acted to spare the mentally retarded from execution and to open the way to DNA testing for certain inmates. In Florida, these steps represent huge progress.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


    Something remarkable came out of this session of the Florida Legislature: two pieces of legislation to make our criminal justice system fairer and more humane. After Gov. Jeb Bush intervened with the House Republican leadership, lawmakers in the final hours of the session passed a bill sparing the mentally retarded from the death penalty. Earlier, the Legislature sent the governor a bill bringing DNA testing to Florida. Both the governor and the Legislature deserve the gratitude of Floridians on both sides of the capital-punishment issue. Justice has been enhanced.

    It was regrettable, however, that the Legislature also proposed to incorporate the death penalty into the state Constitution. But voters will have their say on that.

    Any inmate who was convicted as a result of a trial, not a plea bargain, will have the opportunity to request a DNA test. The law would give inmates until October 2003, or two years after their conviction was final, whichever is later, to file a motion asking for the test. If a judge finds that DNA evidence would have substantially impacted the verdict, the test will be done, with the state paying the cost for indigent inmates.

    This would be a big step forward for Florida. Up until now, attorneys for prisoners, particularly those on death row, had to fight over the vehement objections of prosecutors for DNA tests. State attorneys would routinely argue that DNA testing couldn't be done because the time for appeals had lapsed. With a straight face, they'd say the system's interest in finality was greater than its interest in preventing the execution of an innocent man.

    Then came Frank Lee Smith, who spent 14 years on death row for the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl. His requests for DNA tests were persistently blocked by prosecutors, and it was only after he died of cancer that a DNA test was done. The results posthumously exonerated him of the crime.

    It jarred everyone.

    No doubt the Smith case was on the mind of state legislators when they passed the law giving convicted men and women the chance to clear their names, but the legislators should have gone even further. Defendants who agreed to plea deals have been left out of the new law. Yet, even inmates who plead guilty are sometimes innocent. Although it seems bizarre, innocent people plead guilty to crimes for all sorts of reasons. Some do because they're mentally unstable, and others do because they don't want to risk the harsh penalties that could be imposed if they go to trial.

    The new law would also fail to provide a mechanism for compensating those people who have been wrongly convicted. When the state unjustly takes years and even decades of a person's life, there should be some automatic process for providing monetary recompense.

    But even with its shortcomings, the DNA testing law would substantially enhance justice in the state, and the Legislature should be applauded for its passage. Asked whether the governor will sign the bill, a spokesperson said Bush has expressed support for expanded inmate access to DNA testing but has to review the particulars of the bill before making a decision. We can't imagine him not signing it.

    DNA testing. A ban on condemning mentally retarded defendants. In Florida, that's huge progress.

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