November 13, 2006

Recent American Bar Association Report on Florida's Death Penalty

It's a troubling fact that 22 death row inmates have been exonerated since the death penalty was reinstated in 1973 - more than any other state in the nation. The ABA report notes that "During that same time, Florida executed sixty death-row inmates. Therefore, the proportion exonerated exceeds thirty percent of the number executed."

While it doesn't advocate or take any position for or against the death penalty, the ABA's research found a number of serious deficiencies. Here is a brief summary of their extensive report:

Florida Leads the Nation in Death-Row Exonerations: Combined, these death-row exonerees served approximately 150 years in prison before being released.

Inadequate Compensation for Conflict Trial Counsel in Death Penalty Cases: The statutory fee cap [..] and the failure to regularly provide for partial payments have the potential to dissuade the most experienced and qualified attorneys from taking capital cases and may preclude those attorneys who do take these cases from having the funds necessary to present a vigorous defense.

Lack of Qualified and Properly Monitored Capital Collateral Registry Counsel: Registry attorneys, who are being appointed with greater frequency to capital collateral cases since the closure of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel Office in the Northern Region of Florida, need only minimal trial and appellate experience to qualify for appointment and are not adequately monitored.

Inadequate Compensation for Capital Collateral Registry Attorneys: In at least some instances, registry attorneys handling capital collateral cases are not fully compensated at a rate that is commensurate with the provision of high quality legal representation.

Significant Capital Juror Confusion: Death sentences resulting from juror confusion or mistake are not tolerable, but research establishes that many Florida capital jurors do not understand their role and responsibilities when deciding whether to impose a death sentence.

Lack of Unanimity in Jury’s Sentencing Decision in Capital Cases: The Florida Supreme Court recently noted that “Florida is now the only state in the country that allows a jury to find that aggravators exist and to recommend a sentence of death by a mere majority vote.” Additionally, a recent study found that Florida’s practice of permitting capital sentencing recommendations by a majority vote reduces the jury’s deliberation time and thus may diminish the thoroughness of the deliberations.

The Practice of Judicial Override: Between 1972 and 1999, 166 of the 857 first-time death sentences imposed (or 19.4 percent) involved a judicial override of a jury’s recommendation of life imprisonment or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. [..] Florida law still authorizes the practice.

Lack of Transparency in the Clemency Process: Full and proper use of the clemency process is essential to guaranteeing fairness in the administration of the death penalty. Given the ambiguities and confidentiality surrounding Florida’s clemency decision-making process and the fact that clemency has not been granted to a death-sentenced inmate since 1983, it is difficult to conclude that Florida’s clemency process is adequate.

Racial Disparities in Florida’s Capital Sentencing: [A] criminal defendant in a capital case is, other things being equal, 3.4 times more likely to receive the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is African-American.

Geographic Disparities in Florida’s Capital Sentencing: The cause of these geographic disparities is unclear, but one possible variable is the charging decision. Research in other states indicates that charging practices vary from prosecutor to prosecutor and few of the prosecutor offices in Florida that we contacted have written polices governing the charging decision. Research also suggests that some capital charging decisions in Florida are influenced by racial factors.

Death Sentences Imposed on People with Severe Mental Disability: The State of Florida has a significant number of people with severe mental disabilities on death row, some of whom were disabled at the time of the offense and others of whom became seriously ill after conviction and sentence.

In assessing Florida's system, the team measured state law, procedure and practices against protocols developed by the ABA to evaluate death-penalty jurisprudence. Its findings are troubling. It found "the state did not comply with 23 protocols, partially complied with 36, and fully complied with only eight." The team was unable to assess compliance with 25 protocols because the records do not exist or were not easily obtainable.

Florida is not alone among Southern states with broken death penalty systems. The ABA's study of the death penalty in Alabama and Georgia reveals similar problems.