Florida’s Horrifying Plan to Make It Quicker and Easier to Execute Its Death Row Inmates

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 15 2013 5:30 AM

Death Trap

Florida’s horrifying plan to make it quicker and easier to execute its death row inmates.

Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin
Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin

Photo by Florida Department of Corrections/Handout/Reuters

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

On Wednesday night in Florida, a man named William Van Poyck was executed by lethal injection. Van Poyck was convicted of killing a prison guard, Fred Griffis, in 1987. He always said that it was his accomplice who pulled the trigger, and last month, that man’s wife came forward for the first time to say that was true. But the Florida courts turned down many appeals from Van Poyck over the years—twice by a vote of 4 to 3. And this week, the U.S. Supreme Court denied him a last-minute reprieve.

Van Poyck became a writer in prison. He wrote three books—two crime novels and a memoir—and he also kept a blog, in the form of letters he wrote to his sister, Lisa. Last month, he wrote about what it’s like to anticipate one’s own death:

"When your warrant gets signed so many things suddenly become trivial. I've already thrown or given away 95% of my personal property, the stuff that for years seemed so important. All those great books I'll never get to read; reams and reams of legal work I've been dragging around, and studying, for 2 decades and which has suddenly lost its relevance. My magazines and newspapers stack up unread. ... Does it really matter to me now what's happening in the Middle East, or on Wall Street, or how my Miami Dolphins are looking for the upcoming new season? What's the point? Ditto the TV; I’m uninterested in wasting time that means nothing in the grand scheme of things. The other day I caught myself reaching for my daily vitamin. Really?, I wondered ... Now, every decision about how to spend the next hour reminds me of Elaine in that Seinfeld episode where she had to constantly evaluate whether her boyfriends were really 'sponge worthy.' "

Van Poyck’s execution signals that the number of inmates being executed in Florida is rising. There are 405 people on death row in the state. After a period of one or two executions per year, or none at all, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has signed 11 death warrants since coming into office in January 2011, six of them in the last few months.

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That’s not enough for the Florida legislature. It recently became the first in the country to pass a bill requiring the pace of executions to speed up. It’s called the Timely Justice Act, and it sets a deadline of 30 days for the governor to sign a death warrant once an inmate’s appeals become final—that is, after at least one round of state and federal appeals, and after a review by the governor for clemency. And once the governor signs the warrant, the Timely Justice Act says the execution must occur within 180 days. Scott signed the bill into law late Friday.

This is a particularly troubling plan given the circumstances in Florida. Since the mid-1970s, the state has executed 77 people. Florida has also exonerated 24 people who’ve been sentenced to die—the most of any state. In other words, for every three inmates executed, one is set free.  

What’s the problem in Florida—why do they convict and sentence to die so many innocent people? It’s the only state in the country in which a simple majority of the jury—a vote of 7 to 5—can send a man or woman to the electric chair or lethal injection. Every other state but one requires a unanimous vote. (The other exception to that rule, Alabama, requires 10 votes).

Another huge problem in Florida: the low quality of defense lawyers, especially at trial. Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero has said that "some of the worst lawyering" he has ever seen has been in death penalty cases, where some counsel “have little or no experience.” In 2006, the American Bar Association reviewed Florida’s death penalty system, questioned its fairness and accuracy, and made 11 recommendations for reform. The Florida Supreme Court and the Florida bar have also urged a comprehensive review. None of this has happened, as Andrew Cohen points out in the Atlantic.

The Timely Justice Act also puts Florida out of step with the rest of the country. Nationally, the number of executions has been falling. California and North Carolina haven’t executed anyone since 2006. Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland recently repealed their death penalties. Even Texas, the nation’s leader in executions, will have to slow down to fix problems with its law, according to a recent Supreme Court ruling.

Why does Florida want to go in the opposite direction? "Only God can judge," Matt Gaetz, a Republican who sponsored the Timely Justice Act in the Florida House, has said. "But we sure can set up the meeting." When I called Gaetz to discuss his bill further, he didn’t call me back. Neither did the bill’s sponsor in the state senate, Joe Negron. Another state senator who backed the bill, Rob Bradley, agreed to talk. He is a lawyer who says that people are sitting on death row too long. “Everybody realizes right now, that when a person is sentenced to death, it’s going to be 10, 20, 30, 40 years before they are executed,” Bradley says. “And so that erodes the public’s confidence, and it leaves the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the system is broken.”

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