Thursday, April 12, 2007

A capital corrective

Published April 12, 2007

Thanks to DNA evidence and its use in uncovering cases of wrongful convictions, we now know that our state's criminal justice system is at times terribly fallible. Convicting the wrong person is bad enough when the result is time in prison, but it is unconscionable when that innocent person lands on death row.

There are no shortcuts to justice. The only real way to prevent innocent people from being executed is to abolish the death penalty or provide competent, professional lawyers. In Florida, that kind of representation has come from the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel (CCRC). These state-run regional offices are staffed by experienced lawyers who know the ins and outs of the capital appellate process.

For years, the CCRC system worked well, until Jeb Bush as governor decided it was working a little too well. He resented the successes the offices had in representing their clients and sought to close them all down. He wanted faster executions at a cheaper price, and he thought that he could make that happen by turning the cases over to private lawyers whose hours-per-case would be sharply limited. It was a way to pretend that death row inmates received due process, while handicapping their representation.

In the end, only one of the three regional offices, the northern CCRC office, was closed in 2003. Cases from that region were turned over to private lawyers who signed up on a registry. But it soon became apparent that the experiment was an unmitigated disaster. Many of the private lawyers were unable to competently navigate the complex terrain of capital appeals, known as the brain surgery of the legal profession. One of Bush's own appointees to the Florida Supreme Court, Justice Raul Cantero, said it was "some of the worst lawyering I've seen." The bad lawyering led to pointless delays, as the courts attempted to separate the legitimate issues from the chaff.

Now, with a new governor, it looks like there is momentum to reopen the northern CCRC office. A great deal of credit belongs to Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who is using his credibility on criminal justice issues to steer a bill through the Senate. The House needs to join the effort. This is not about coddling criminals; it is about providing seasoned counsel so that our system runs smoothly and only the truly guilty face the ultimate penalty.

A recent report of the Auditor General comparing the CCRC offices to the private attorney registry approach makes it clear that the CCRC provides much fuller representation. And the Florida Supreme Court has weighed in "unanimously and very firmly," saying that the three regional CCRC offices are "far superior" to the private attorney registry. This is one of those issues that only requires lawmakers to do the right thing.

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