Monday, October 27, 2008

Fla.'s death penalty unchanged 2 years after study

Associated Press Writer

Two years ago, an independent panel made 12 recommendations to reform Florida's death penalty process. That report has since done little more than gather dust ever since.

None of the proposals from the American Bar Association panel of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and college professors has been adopted by the state and it's now unlikely any ever will.

Some panel members say it all comes down to politics: Gov. Charlie Crist and state lawmakers don't want to appear soft on the death penalty by adopting measures that would be seen as impeding executions.

Some of the recommendations were controversial. One required that juries be unanimous in recommending death and would make it illegal for a judge to overrule a jury that has recommended life in prison instead of death. Currently, a jury's vote is only advisory and can be split.

Other recommendations included requiring better qualifications and pay for appellate attorneys; taking steps to eliminate juror confusion on capital cases; examining racial and geographic disparities in sentencing; and creating commissions to explore the cause of wrongful convictions and review claims of innocence.

Christopher Slobogin, a former University of Florida law professor, was the chairman of the panel. He said state politicians fear that if they took up the panel's recommendations that "would make them look like they were anti-death penalty, which is the kiss of death, so to speak, in Florida politics."

But some legislators counter that many of the recommendations are unconstitutional and accuse the panel of making them with an anti-death penalty bias.

"We've looked at all the recommendations that were available and we've made the necessary changes," said state Sen. Victor Crist, who is not related to the governor. "Our experts tell us we've done everything we need to do. Florida has the most highly advanced, most aggressively funded and most finely tuned death penalty process and representation any where in the world."

One the eight committee members, Mark R. Schlakman, senior program director at Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, is pushing for Florida officials to take another look at the report.

He has recently visited new Supreme Court Chief Justice Peggy A. Quince. He's also talked to Roger Maas, executive director of the Commission on Capital Cases, and state legislative leaders. With the recent appointment of two new Supreme Court justices, Quince offered no commitments on the proposals.

"Florida residents expect a system of justice that engenders confidence based upon fairness and accuracy," Schlakman said.

Sandy D'Alemberte, former Florida State University president and a former president of the American Bar Association, served on the National Advisory Board of the ABA project, which also examined the death penalty in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

He believes changes still need to be made.

"The whole system of criminal justice is broken," he said. "Look at the number of DNA exonerations in Florida and these have not been followed by any corrections of the problems in the system."

Gov. Crist has no further interest in the ABA's suggestions, according to his spokesman, Sterling Ivey. He is particularly opposed to requiring an unanimous jury recommendation.

In urging the Legislature not to change the law in 2005, Crist - then attorney general - noted that serial killers Ted Bundy and Aileen Wuornos would have been spared if an unanimous jury vote had been required. Both had 10-2 jury votes for death.

Just months after the report was released, the botched execution of Angel Diaz in December 2006 took the attention off problems with the death penalty and changed the focus to the state's death chamber procedures and lethal chemicals. Gov. Jeb Bush imposed a moratorium until the protocols could be examined. first by a state committee and then by the U.S. Supreme Court in a Kentucky case.

Another committee member, Harry Shorstein, the state attorney in Jacksonville for 27 years, continues to favor the death penalty, but only for "the worst of the worst."

"The system as it applies to the death penalty is broken," Shorstein said. "I'm not sure it is capable of being fixed."

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