TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A panel that included legal experts, academics and lawmakers on Monday renewed a push for changes to try to make Florida's death penalty more just and prevent innocent people from being executed.
Participants' views about their chances of success ranged from hopeful to despairing in a state that leads the nation with 23 death row inmates who have been exonerated.
"It seems to be a problem that may not be able to be solved," said former State Attorney Harry Shorstein of Jacksonville. "What the public doesn't understand is how expensive this litigation has been over the years."
Shorstein, who participated by telephone, supports the death penalty but said he's troubled with the lack of movement toward fixing its problems.
Florida State University's law school sponsored the forum to mark the fifth anniversary of an American Bar Association study that criticized the state's death penalty procedures and made a number of recommendations.
One was that juries be unanimous in recommending death sentences. Florida is the only death penalty state that lets juries make sentencing decisions or recommendations by a simple majority. Florida judges have the final say but must give great weight to jury recommendations.
State Sen. Thad Altman for a second year is sponsoring a bill (SB 772) that would require unanimous findings of aggravating factors as well as death sentence recommendations. His legislation failed without so much as a committee hearing earlier this year.
"I'm hoping ... we can at least get a hearing," the Viera Republican told other panel members. "I don't think that's asking too much."
The panel's moderator, Mark Schlakman, senior program director at Florida State's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, was more optimistic.
Schlakman noted the new bill would apply only to crimes committed after Oct. 1, 2012. Prosecutors had been worried about it being retroactive to existing cases.
Also, since the last legislative session, U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez in Miami has ruled Florida's death sentence law is unconstitutional because jury recommendations don't have to be unanimous. The state is appealing.
"Irrespective of where the appeal goes, it underscores the concern about that process," Schlakman said in an interview.
Some lawmakers have opposed changes because they were afraid that might result in more appeals. Martinez' ruling shows the opposite may be the case, Schlakman said.
In a prerecorded video presentation, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero said the high court as long ago as 2005 had urged unanimous jury recommendations.
Noting he was appointed by Republican former Gov. Jeb Bush, Cantero also criticized Bush's decision to abolish a state office that represented death row inmates on appeal to save money and replaced it with private lawyers. Two similar state offices covering the rest of Florida were not closed.
North Florida inmates often are represented by inexperienced or unqualified lawyers and some of their briefs have been "atrocious," Cantero said.
He said it's not a liberal versus conservative or Democrat versus Republican issue.
"This is an issue about rationality, about making the justice system rational and making sure that only those that are guilty are convicted and only those who commit the most egregious murders are sentenced to death," Cantero said.
Schlakman also is hopeful Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican businessman who never ran for public office before last year, will be receptive.
"Gov. Scott approaches issues, whether one agrees or disagrees with his policy, with a fresh look and an open mind without having had much in the way of political background on these issues and tends to look at issues in general within the context of business practices," Schlakman said.
He pointed out there has been some progress with the Supreme Court adopting the ABA's recommendations for changes in death penalty jury instructions.
Chief Justice Charles Canady also has created an Innocence Commission that's working on recommendations for ways to avoid wrongful convictions for crimes of all kinds. The commission's executive director, Les Garringer, a former Monroe County judge, said a separate panel should be formed to examine issues unique to the death penalty.
Schlackman also was hopeful a death penalty documentary planned by Florida State's College of Motion Picture Arts would help shift public opinion.
The forum was held just one day before the scheduled execution of Oba Chandler. He was convicted of killing an Ohio woman and her two teenage daughters and throwing their bodies into Tampa Bay in 1989.
The focus, though, was not on the execution or whether the death penalty is right or wrong but on improving the administration of justice although one lawmaker has filed a bill to abolish it.
"Our goal and role is to change the conversation," Schlakman said.
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