Count on Florida to concoct laws that have nothing to do with justice, but much to do with political expediency.
It’s been that way for a while.
In 2010, under the pretense of preventing voter fraud, the GOP-led Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott limited early voting hours and imposed other inconveniences that led to block-long lines at the polls in 2012, and made Florida the laughingstock of the nation as it was in 2000.
But now it seems that while many of those same lawmakers didn’t mind people waiting too long to vote, some can’t stand the thought of death row inmates waiting too long to die.
No matter that, especially in Florida, some of those inmates may be innocent.
But that apparently doesn’t matter to those who overwhelmingly passed the Timely Justice Act bill – which is now awaiting Scott’s signature. Under the bill, inmates who believe they have been wrongly condemned would get roughly eight months to prove their innocence. After that, Scott would be required to sign a death warrant within 30 days.
After that, they’d get the needle in 180 days.
First of all, it’s laughable and disturbing that Florida, which with 24 exonerations has the most of any state, would be trying to speed up executions. If anything, it should be trying to slow them down – so as not to have the blood of another Frank Lee Smith on their hands.
Smith spent 14 years on death row before being exonerated of raping and murdering an 8-year-old girl in 1985. His conviction came largely because of eyewitness testimony, which is known to be unreliable. The legal advice Smith received to plead insanity didn’t help; the jury convicted him and sentenced him to death in 1986.
His death warrant was signed in 1989, but after receiving a stay after one eyewitness changed her testimony years later, Smith’s attorneys began requesting DNA testing in 1998.
But cancer claimed Smith before justice came. He died in prison in January 2000 – eleven months before DNA tests not only cleared him of the crime, but also identified the true perpetrator.
Florida might even be headed for a 25th exoneration. According to The New York Times, Clemente Javier Aguirre-Jarguin, who has been on death row since 2006 for murdering two women, has presented DNA evidence that shows the blood at the crime scene wasn’t his, but possibly that of one of the victims’ daughters.
Unfortunately, it seems that in Florida a sense of shame, as well as compassion and common sense, is lacking among the people who run the state. And those qualities seem to be especially lacking when they’re dealing with people who they believe are powerless and voiceless.
That’s what they did in 2010, when instead of trying to thwart the state’s real problems, such as poverty and unemployment, Tea Party lawmakers spent most of the session trying to thwart black, Latino and any group likely to vote for President Obama. They learned nothing from the presidential election debacle of 2000, when the recount and scenes of people counting “hanging chads,” made Florida a running joke on late night television. Ultimately, the embarrassment and outcry forced Scott to reverse most of the voting laws he signed.
But this Timely Justice Act is nothing to joke about.
People who are robbed of the chance to vote because of cumbersome laws may get the chance to vote again. An innocent person who is put to death or who dies in prison after spending most of his life there for a crime he didn’t commit, however, doesn’t get a do-over.
And considering how often Florida gets convictions wrong, it ought to do what Illinois did. In 2011, it abolished the death penalty after 13 inmates had been exonerated based on DNA evidence.
But that would be too much like the right thing to do. It didn’t want black, Latino and poor people to be able to vote quickly, but it sure wants to kill death row inmates quickly.
Apparently, they want them dead before they can get a chance to prove their innocence – and in doing so, prove the justice system’s incompetence.
And lawmakers’ insensitivity.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her @tonyaajw. Or like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.