System May Be Slowing Appeals

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
July 17, 2000 12:00 am

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TALLAHASSEE, FL --Two years after the Florida Legislature implemented a system to give death penalty cases to private defense attorneys, problems are arising that suggest the effort could delay rather than streamline the death penalty process, the St. Petersburg Times reported today.

"This is the kind of system you get when the Governor and the Legislature cynically use the death penalty to pander to public sentiment," said Howard L. Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. "More value has been placed on speeding the assembly line of state executions rather than ensuring that no one is wrongfully sentenced to death."

In six of the cases in which private attorneys are being paid to pursue required death penalty appeals, lawyers have neglected deadlines that could prevent their clients from having their claims heard in federal court. Others have filed motions that were so incomplete the American Bar Association described the work as a "non-motion."

Some officials defend the private attorney system, saying the problems are few compared with the properly handled cases. Putting limits on lawyers, they say, will end frivolous appeals and delaying tactics and allow the state to mete out justice more swiftly to condemned killers. "Maybe there's been problems," acknowledged Roger Maas, who as executive director of the Commission on Capital Cases runs the registry, "But if there are, they'll be addressed.".)

But others contend that these early efforts show that lawyers with little experience in complex death penalty appeal law are doing inadequate work that in the end may result in further delays or improper executions. Critics say that the program -- called "the registry"-- is another program by the Republican-controlled Legislature to strip away the rights of the condemned to satisfy voters frustrated at the time it takes to execute killers.

"This is not a lawyer -- it's the illusion of a lawyer," said Stephen Hanlon, a lawyer who does pro-bono death penalty work for Holland & Knight and has challenged the registry in a case before the Florida Supreme Court.

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