Innocent on Death Row? New Evidence Casts Doubt on Convictions

Rodney Reed’s death sentence was suspended. But researchers say other current cases raise similar doubt about the guilt of the accused.
The number of executions in the United States remains close to nearly a three-decade low. And yet the decline has not prevented what those who closely track the death penalty see as a disturbing trend: a significant number of cases in which prisoners are being put to death, or whose execution dates are near, despite questions about their guilt.
Rodney Reed, who came within days of execution in Texas before an appeals court suspended his death sentence on Friday, has been the most high-profile recent example, receiving support from Texas lawmakers of both parties and celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West, who urged a new examination of the evidence.
Mr. Reed has long maintained that he did not commit the 1996 murder for which he was convicted. And in recent months, new witnesses came forward pointing toward another possible suspect: the dead…

Gov. Rick Scott signs bill to speed up executions in Florida

Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law Friday aimed at accelerating the pace of the death penalty process in Florida that could make the governor the most active executioner in modern state history.

The measure, dubbed "the Timely Justice Act" by its proponents, requires governors to sign death warrants 30 days after the Florida Supreme Court certifies that an inmate has exhausted his legal appeals and his clemency review. Once a death warrant is signed, the new law requires the state to execute the defendant within 6 months.

In a lengthy letter accompanying his signature, Scott aggressively countered allegations by opponents that the law will "fast track" death penalty cases and emphasized that it "discourages stalling tactics" of defense attorneys and ensures that the convicted "do not languish on death row for decades."

The bill, which passed the House 84-34 and was approved by the Senate 28-10, allows the governor to control the execution schedule slightly because it requires him to sign a death warrant after the required clemency review is completed and only the governor may order the clemency investigation. Scott's office told lawmakers that because at least 13 of the 404 inmates on death row have exhausted their appeals, his office has already started the clock on the clemency review.

If Scott were to sign death warrants for the 13 eligible inmates, and their executions were to continue as planned, he will be on schedule to put to death 21 murderers since he took office in January 2011. The only other recent governor who executed that many people was former Gov. Jeb Bush, who ordered the execution of 21 convicted killers but did it over an 8-year period.

The only governor to commute a death sentence since the state passed its current capital punishment law in 1973 was former Gov. Bob Graham who reduced the sentences of seven men between 1979 and 1983 for various reasons, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The clemency provision was added at the request of Scott's general counsel, Pete Antonacci. The clemency investigation allows for the state Parole Commission to conduct an off-the-record review of the entire case and recommend whether the death warrant should be signed or the sentence commuted.

Opponents warn that the accelerated clock will diminish the opportunity to exonerate anyone on death row who has been wrongly convicted, reduce the opportunity to challenge convictions because of ineffective counsel, and produce a "bloodbath" of executions in the next month.

"Gov. Scott came to Tallahassee to restructure our economy and drag us out of the recession, but if this happens history will note him as the governor who signed more warrants than anyone else," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. But Antonacci, who has overseen the governor's death penalty review, disagrees. The clemency provision was added at his request and that clemency investigations typically take from 4 months to a year, after which the governor and Cabinet serving as the clemency board must decides whether to commute a sentence or move forward with the death warrant. But, he acknowledged, the 13 inmates now undergoing the review "will be done within the next year."

The Timely Justice Act comes at a time when 5 other states are either repealing or putting a moratorium on executions, and the Florida Supreme Court is conducting a comprehensive review aimed at making more efficient the state's post-conviction process.

Florida leads the nation in exonerating death row inmates, having released 24 prisoners from Death Row in the last decade. Death penalty opponents flooded the governor's office with letters and petitions urging him to veto the bill and ask the Legislature to reform what they consider a deeply flawed death penalty process in Florida. Among their complaints: Florida is only 1 of 2 states that do not require a unanimous jury to sentence someone to death.

But the bill's supporters say that the ability to exonerate the innocent will not be hampered by the faster appeals process and argue that it will restore the deterrent value of the state's death penalty.

"We're not short on anti-death penalty zealots in Florida, but most people in Florida think it's unreasonable to put people on death row 20 to 25 years when their sentence was not in question," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the House sponsor of the bill.

Supporters said 154 inmates have been on Florida's death row 20 years and 10 have been there for more than 35 years. The average time for appeals runs 13 years, which is below the national average of 14.8 years.

Death penalty opponents flooded the governor's office with letters and petitions, urging him to veto the bill and ask the Legislature to instead change what they consider a deeply flawed death penalty process in Florida.

"If this bill had been law, it would have ended my life - even though I was innocent," said Sean Penalver of Broward County, who was exonerated after 6 years on death row, as he delivered 6,000 petitions to the governor's office in May. "But if he signs this bill into law, I fear other innocent people like me will be unjustly executed by the State of Florida."

The law imposes strict time limits for when records must be submitted from courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys in an attempt to streamline the appeals process. It also requires reports to the Legislature on how many cases have been pending, reestablishes a death row appeals office for North Florida and bans attorneys from handling capital appeals if they have been twice cited for constitutionally incompetent handling of cases. After an inmate is executed, the law also allows the state to destroy all records relating to the convicted killer's case, unless a lawyer objects - a change in policy that Simon of the ACLU finds shocking.

"We may execute an innocent person and then destroy the files so the people of Florida will never know that we committed that travesty," he said. "It's essentially cover it up."

Source: Miami Herald, June 14, 2013

Death Trap: Florida's horrifying plan to make it quicker and easier to execute its death row inmates

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 1st 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 - 2 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 1 or 2 executions per year, or none at all, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has signed 11 death warrants since coming into office in January 2011, 6 of them in the last few months.

That's not enough for the Florida legislature. It recently became the 1st 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 1 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 3 inmates executed, 1 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."

I'd argue that having the highest rate of exonerations in the country might also erode the public's confidence in the state's system. And in fact, it's not true that Florida is particularly slow to execute - the state's average waiting time of 13.2 years is less than the national average of 14.8 years.

Bradley insists that the Timely Justice Act won't make it quicker and easier to execute someone who is innocent. "What it does is it puts the condemned and his or her lawyers on notice that they need to, if they have claims of innocence, they need to gather them and present them to a competent court of law, and do so in a timely manner," he said.

But there are a couple of problems with that argument. One is that evidence of innocence can surface years after a conviction. Courts move slowly on these cases for a reason: death is different, as the U.S. Supreme Court has said many times.

Take the case of Juan Melendez. He was on Florida's death row for 16 years before a diligent defense investigator discovered a tape in the case files - a tape of another man confessing to the murder that no one had presented to the jury. Before the tape came out, the Florida Supreme Court rejected his appeals 3 times. If the Timely Justice Act had been in effect at the time, Melendez might easily have been executed. I found four more people like that when I looked up the records of Florida's 24 exonerees. These men spent between 13 and 21 years on death row. It took time and a lot of work to undo the mistakes that initially doomed them.

And those mistakes were often made by their own lawyers. William Van Poyck's trial lawyer did no investigation before the trial, digging up nothing that would give the jury a reason to spare his client's life. And the lawyer on his 1st appeal reportedly admitted to being a cocaine addict, had previously been disbarred, and never spoke to Van Poyck or answered any of his letters.

Then there's the case of Clemente Aguirre. He's the man who may well become Florida's 25th exoneree - and his case shows how prone to error Florida's death penalty system still is.

In 2006, Aguirre was accused of murdering two of his neighbors, 47-year-old Cheryl Williams and her mother. The women lived next door to him in a trailer park. The crime was bloody and brutal: Williams was stabbed 129 times. Aguirre was a prep cook from Honduras who was in the United States illegally. At first, when police questioned him about the murders, Aguirre said he knew nothing. Then he went back to the police, on his own, and told them he'd discovered the bodies late on the night of the killings, when he went to Williams' trailer to ask if she had any beer. (Williams had been dating one of Aguirre's roommates.) Aguirre led the police to clothing and shoes he'd been wearing that night, which had the victims' blood on it. He explained that when he opened the door of the trailer, he found Williams' body and turned it over to see if she had a pulse. He hadn't reported the killings, Aguirre said, because he was afraid he'd be deported.

Aguirre's trial lawyer did little investigation and he never asked for DNA testing. The jury voted 7 to 5 to sentence him to death. Interviewed by a state psychiatrist in 2011, Aguirre said, through a translator, "They had the wrong man then, and they have the wrong guy now." He continued: "DNA. DNA. DNA. Si."

Aguirre was right. When his lawyers on appeal finally had DNA testing done, it showed no matches for Aguirre's blood at the crime scene - and 8 fresh bloodstains that matched the DNA profile of Cheryl Williams' daughter. At a hearing last month, Aguirre's lawyers presented this new evidence, along with the testimony of a friend of the daughter, who says the daughter told her that "demons are in her head and caused her to kill her family." A police video also shows the daughter saying, "My family died from me." Aguirre is now waiting for a ruling from the judge who heard the new evidence.

In theory, the Timely Justice Act tries to improve the quality of representation for death penalty defendants by providing more funding for it. But if you read the bill, you find that only about $400,000 has been allocated to reopen one office for defense lawyers in the northern part of the state. And this office won't handle trials or even the 1st appeal. They come in only at the last stage.

If you really wanted to fix Florida's death penalty system, you wouldn't speed it up in a fit of frustration. You'd do the opposite. "Really what we need to do is pause," says Stephen K. Harper, a longtime death penalty defense lawyer and the supervising attorney in the death penalty clinic at Florida International University's law school. "Let's step back, let's consider the death penalty, from beginning through the end, and only then would we be able to come up with decent recommendations as to how to change it."

That's just not what's happening. Now that Scott has signed the Timely Justice Act, the governor's own legal advisor says, there are 13 inmates on death row whose final state of review "will be done within the next year."

Source: Slate.com, June 14, 2013

"Shame on the Governor" for signing Rush-to-Execute Bill; So-called "Timely Justice Act" signed by Gov. Scott exacerbates tragedy of Florida's broken death row

The following statement on Governor Rick Scott's approval of HB 7083, "The Timely Justice Act," may be attributed to Howard Simon, Executive Director, ACLU of Florida:

Shame on the Governor for putting the cynical calculation of his chances for re-election over ensuring that Florida will never execute an innocent person. Signing the "Rush to Execute" bill (the grotesquely-named "Timely Justice Act") will make this next year the deadliest and ugliest in the history of Florida's death row.

Whatever else the Governor's goals and ambitions were - lowering taxes, creating jobs, restructuring our economy - history will remember Scott for executing more people than any other Florida Governor. That will be his legacy.

When sometime in the future Florida faces the horror that the state has executed an innocent person, as the bill the Governor signed today makes terrifyingly likely, Floridians need only look back to this day to answer the question of 'how could this happen.'

The law signed by Governor Scott means that people will have less time to challenge a wrongful conviction than some of those who were able to prove their innocence spent on death row. That's less time for the kind of evidence that exonerated some of Florida's 24 death row exonerees to come to light.

Florida's experience has been nearly one exoneree for every three people executed. Had this law been in effect in the past, innocent people very likely would have been killed. Why would Governor Scott think that the future will be any different?

The death penalty in Florida is already a tragedy, with more exonerations than any other state and a federal judge declaring our method of handing down death sentences unconstitutional. In this climate of increasing doubt about the accuracy, legality, and morality of our death penalty, Governor Scott has required himself to order the executions of 13 people by signing this rush-to-execute bill. His signature will make the next year the most deadly ever on Florida's death row.

Worse still, the bill allows for the destruction of documents pertaining to a case after a person has been executed. This means that even after a rushed execution, people won't be able to have a full record of what happened, casting further doubt on the process. If the state executed an innocent person, the destruction of the records will ensure that the people will never know about it. How are Floridians supposed to trust our justice system when records about what it does in our name are destroyed forever?

Given our state's shameful track record, you'd think our leaders would at the very least make an effort to make sure our death penalty system is getting it right. Instead, the governor and legislature floored the gas pedal on an already out-of-control machine, hurtling the people of Florida into a dangerous and violent future of their government killing people with more frequency and less certainty.

Source: ACLUFL.org, June 13, 2013

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