Florida leads nation in wrongful convictions among Death Row inmates

By LAURIE GOERING Chicago Tribune
Feb. 28, 2000

MIAMI -- Since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the resumption of the death penalty in 1976, Florida has reversed the convictions of 20 Death Row inmates, more than any other state in the nation. As was the case in Illinois, many of the inmates were released from Death Row on evidence of prosecutorial errors, lying by witnesses or confessions by others.

   Last year, 75 percent of the death-penalty cases brought before the appeals court were overturned.  

  While Illinois Gov. George Ryan has issued a moratorium on executions, Florida's Legislature is moving to limit appeals.

   Last month, with the support of Gov. Jeb Bush, legislators in a three-day special session passed the Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000, a new law to limit appeals from Death Row inmates.  Its aim is to allow the execution of Death Row inmates within five years of sentencing.

   The governor says the new law puts victims' rights on a par with those of criminals, and that a faster appeals process should help free the innocent, as well as execute the guilty, more quickly.

   Critics, however, say history shows that cutting the appeals process, particularly to five years or less, is almost certain to result in the execution of innocent people.

   "What we know if we look at the 85 exonerations nationwide since 1976 is that the average time that people spent on Death Row was 7½ years" before new evidence came to light, said Elizabeth Semel, director of the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Representation Project in Washington.

   Florida's law "is not responsible legislation," she said. "This is not a sane way to proceed."

   Law's six-month delay
   The new law appears likely to prompt a major showdown between the Florida Supreme Court and the Bush administration.

   The court has slapped a six-month moratorium on putting the new law into effect, a move designed to allow time to determine its constitutionality.

   Florida's push to limit appeals and thus speed executions comes as part of a growing divide between northern and Southern states over the death penalty.

   Illinois, which has seen 13 Death Row inmates exonerated, last month suspended executions.

   Nebraska is trying for a similar moratorium, and Indiana, Pennsylvania and New Jersey all have expressed doubts about errors in their systems.

   Alabama, Georgia and Florida, meanwhile, are following the lead of Texas in pushing for speedier executions. "It's a schizophrenic time," said Semel, whose group has pushed since 1997 for a national freeze on executions.

   "Moratorium bills are popping up all over the place. But at the same time that some states are saying, 'We think we've got a problem, we better stop and take a look,' Florida and others are going the opposite direction."

   Mike Radelet, a University of Florida sociologist who has spent 20 years studying the death penalty, attributes the North-South divide to a historic Southern preference for executions, dating to the Civil War. 

  Since 1976, he noted, 80 percent of the nation's 660 executions have taken place in southern states -- including two last week in Florida and two in Texas. "If you ask people in power (in Florida) why they don't do what Gov. Ryan did, they'll say, 'Well, these people are guilty,'" Radelet said."But I wouldn't say the Florida cases are any weaker or stronger than those in Illinois. The difference is the refusal here to learn from them."

   One of the most famous of Florida's wrongful conviction cases was that of Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, who spent 12 years on Death Row for the slayings of two gas-station attendants. The two, who had been at the station earlier on the night of the crime, were freed after another man's confession to the murders -- made a year and a half after the crime -- was admitted in court a decade later. The men eventually were granted $1 million in damages by the Legislature.

   Pitts, 55, now a truck driver living in Miami, testified against Florida's new law.

   "I told them I was thankful this law wasn't on the books when I was on Death Row, or I wouldn't be there talking to them," he said.

   "If Florida isn't careful innocent people will die. And I don't think they care. They're persuaded the system doesn't make mistakes."

   Nationwide, a new Gallup Poll released on Thursday shows that support for the death penalty remains highest among southerners, whites, older people, men, the less-educated and Republicans.

   Across the board, however, support for executions is declining. 

  Today 66 percent of Americans support the death penalty, down from 80 percent in 1994, the poll shows. Support slides further, to 51 percent, if the option of life in prison without possibility of parole is available.

   In Florida, as in Illinois, the guilt of at least some inmates on Death Row is in doubt.

   Florida has by far the largest number of Death Row cases where an inmate was granted a new trial either because prosecutors withheld evidence suggesting innocence or because they knowingly used false evidence, according to Tribune research.

   Both problems are considered the worst type of prosecutorial misconduct and generally take the longest time to debunk, Tribune researchers found.

   In part because of such problems, Florida's reversal rate of Death Row convictions on direct appeal, a first appeal based solely on evidence already presented in court, averages almost 50 percent, according to the American Bar Association.

   Since 1976, the state has executed 46 people -- the third-highest number in the country, behind Texas and Virginian -- and exonerated 20, the bar said.

   Modeled after Texas
   Generally nationwide, many Death Row convictions are reversed based on a second appeal that looks at new information.

   Under Florida's new law, that appeal, as well as the direct appeal, must be filed within six months of a death sentence, down from two years in most states.

   The law, modeled on one in Texas, also sets deadlines for various stages of the appeals, and denies time extensions to lawyers.

   Such moves are likely to dramatically reduce the time that is generally needed to uncover new evidence, whether it is new witnesses, DNA evidence or proof of prosecutorial misconduct, Semel said.

   "There are lots of studies around on how to improve a post-conviction review system so it is faster and fairer, but I know of no study that recommends anything like this," Kendall said. "The only interest served is speed. This is all about pushing cases through the system."

   Some analysts think the Bush administration may have pushed through the new death-penalty law primarily to spark a confrontation with appointed Supreme Court members, whom the administration would like to see replaced with elected judges.

   "They're unhappy with the death sentences we've set aside and sent back for retrial," said recently retired Supreme Court Judge Gerald Kogan, now president of the Miami Alliance for Ethical Government.

   "The Legislature insists every one of these people (is) factually guilty," he said.

   But "we have innocent people on Death Row. I don't know how many but anybody who understands the justice system knows innocent people are convicted every day."
 




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