Justice Is Working In Florida - Jeb Bush
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Justice Is Working In Florida

by Jeb Bush

Seventeen years ago, Fred Way fractured the skulls of his wife and 15-year-old daughter with a hammer and burned them alive in a locked garage.

For these horrific crimes, a judge and jury recommended a death sentence, which the Florida Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed in mid-April. Was their decision a "mistake" or 'just-dessert' for a heartless killer?

A new Columbia Law School study says the Way decision and dozens like it were the product of "serious error" and proof that Florida's death penalty system is "broken." In fact, according to the study at least 73 percent of Florida death cases are "fraught with error." Predictably, the study's release was lauded with front page headlines across our State, and new calls for a moratorium on executions.

However, when my staff reviewed the limited data the study authors have made publicly available, they were considerably less impressed.

First, they learned the study authors did not define "serious error" as mistakes in the ordinary sense of the word, i.e., Florida convicted the wrong man. In fact, the study's analysis of 64 state post-conviction death penalty cases showed a zero percent error rate using such a standard - Florida convicted the right man for the right crime every time.

Second, the study dramatically overstated the number of cases where an individual was sentenced to death based on a "mistake." For instance, in more than a third of the post-conviction cases cited by the study, the death sentence was reaffirmed after further review by the courts. This includes the case of Fred Way, whose death sentence was reviewed again to make sure it complied with changes in the law occurring while his case was on appeal.

Way's case involved no mistake - just the careful due process that we should expect from our judiciary in death penalty cases.

Other post-conviction cases cited by the study - such as the case of Mauricio Beltran-Lopez - were resolved with life sentence pleas only to spare further appeal-related trauma for the families of victims.

Incredibly, the study authors also characterize these cases as error-filled.

Ironically, the study authors have some explaining to do about their own errors in characterizing Florida death penalty cases. For instance, the study authors mistakenly suggest that William Thompson's death sentence was reduced to a lesser penalty because of errors in his case. In truth, William Thompson remains on Florida's Death Row today for ramming a chair leg and a night stick into a young woman and beating her to death with a chain belt.

Although the Columbia Law School study's flawed methodology and mistakes make it difficult for me to place great stock in the authors' analysis, it is important to focus on reducing any errors in death penalty cases.

Florida is a leader in this regard, having invested millions of dollars to provide free post-conviction counsel to death row inmates. And our system has been praised by unbiased observers as a model.

The Florida Legislature has also provided needed funding for judges handling death penalty cases, including increases of 82 percent for our Supreme Court and nearly 71 percent for lower courts over the past decade. In addition, Florida's Cabinet is also committed to considering fully claims of innocence through the clemency review process.

But we must do more than remain vigilant on the subject of error. We must also reduce the extraordinary delays in capital cases. The loved ones of Fred Way's victims have been waiting seventeen years for this killer to receive a fair measure of justice. Likewise, the families of Danny Rolling's victims have been waiting for almost a decade for his execution, even though this five-time killer admitted guilt. This is unconscionable and must change.

Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature passed the Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000, in an attempt to reduce delays in capital cases from 14 years to an average of five years. This was a reasonable policy goal that balanced defendants' due process rights with the need to resolve cases in a timely fashion.

The Florida Supreme Court struck down the Act on separation of powers grounds, but can still adopt the Legislature's suggestions as a Court-imposed rule. The Court should do so, and without delay.

Most Floridians believe in the death penalty because they know it saves innocent lives and punishes only the most heinous criminals. They want public officials to review death cases carefully to avoid mistakes. But they also know justice can be delivered with much greater dispatch. The Legislature and I are committed to upholding the people's will in this regard, and we urge our courts to join with us.