Submitted by Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger
“What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
I learned that policemen are my friends
I learned that justice never ends
I learned that murderers die for their crimes
Even if we make a mistake sometimes
And that’s what I learned in school today
That’s what I learned in school.”
–Tom Paxton, “What Did You Learn in School Today?”
When Rick Scott was in the hospital business, his company specialized in billing Medicare for services that were not performed. Now he is governor of a state that specializes in sending people to death row for crimes they did not commit.
Florida conservatives love the death penalty. Since it was reactivated in 1979, 75 people have been executed. In the past two years, Florida has sentenced more persons to death than any other state. And Gov. Scott is setting records of his own, executing eight prisoners to date, the highest rate of any Florida governor in the past thirty years. But despite this carnage, the current death row population still exceeds 400 people, larger than the entire population of many small towns. This is at least partially due to the fact that Florida is one of only two death penalty states that do not require a unanimous jury recommendation of death. Alabama requires a 10-2 vote. Florida is decidedly more majoritarian; a 7-5 favorable vote is sufficient.
Florida also leads the nation in another grim statistic. Since executions have resumed, 24 death row inmates have been exonerated, far more than in any other state. This means that for every three persons executed over the past thirty years, one additional death row inmate has been found innocent and released. One would think that given this statistic, combined with Florida’s history of botched executions and chronic underfunding of agencies charged with defending those on death row, the legislature would be looking at ways to improve the system. And one would be wrong. On June 14, 2013, Gov. Scott signed the Timely Justice Act, a bill that is intended to hasten executions. The new statute was signed by the governor over the opposition of every major newspaper in Florida, the Innocence Project and other bar groups, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops and ordinary citizens who sent thousands of letters and emails to Tallahassee. It requires that death warrants be signed within 30 days following certification by the Clerk of the Florida Supreme Court that initial post-conviction appellate proceedings have been completed. It also requires that a death warrant specify an execution date within 180 days. And it imposes strict procedural deadlines for other post-conviction motions.
The chief sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican, described the bill as “a modest down payment on the reforms that we need to ensure that victims’ families aren’t waiting decades for justice.” As if to confirm that the intent of the new law is wholly unrelated to preventing the execution of innocent persons, Rep. Gaetz also observed, “Only God can judge, but we sure can set up the meeting.”
Attorneys have already filed proceedings in the Florida Supreme Court seeking to block implementation of the new law for numerous constitutional infirmities, not the least of which is the legislative intrusion on the rule-making authority of the judiciary, a game played with increasing relish by legislative bodies. But once again we are witnessing the worst excesses of the evangelical right. No reasonable person can deny any longer the arbitrary and racist history of capital punishment in this country. It remains the nation’s shame that capital punishment still exists. However, until we decide to reject the efforts of a minority to impose Old Testament views on the justice system, we will continue to see this sort of legislative abomination.