Defense attorneys for Florida convicts are in a race against the calendar in a state with the nation’s third-largest prison population and a record of flawed capital convictions, the Boston Globe says. In 2001, after the DNA exoneration of an inmate who died on death row, Florida enacted passed a law giving inmates the right to seek DNA testing if they could make the case that DNA was likely to exonerate them. The right was available only to those who had pleaded not guilty and could make their case within two years. The deadine is Oct. 1.
The approaching deadline had left the Innocence Project of lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York swamped with more than 1,000 requests from Florida inmates and too few lawyers to handle them. For those involved with the Innocence Project, which has used DNA to uncover 127 wrongful convictions throughout the country, Florida looks like fertile ground. The state surpassed New York this year to become the country’s third-largest prison population behind Texas and California.
Florida leads the country in the number of persons released from death row for wrongful convictions, says the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. In January, Rudolph Holton became the 25th person to win release from Florida’s death row after serving 16 years for a conviction tainted by sloppy police work and unreliable witnesses. Death penalty opponents said there are at least 10 other death row cases with credible claims of innocence in Florida.
Project lawyers believe that unless the deadline is extended, thousands of inmates with valid claims for testing could be excluded. Even assuming an immovable deadline, however, their efforts are almost certain to produce more exonerations in a state where elected officials once were accused of being soft on crime for suggesting the electric chair’s tendency to set inmates on fire was becoming a problem. There are approximately 75,210 inmates in Florida’s prisons, including 368 residents on death row.
Governor Jeb Bush, who has been firm in resisting the idea that Florida should impose a moratorium or appoint a commission to suggest an overhaul to the system of capital punishment, says that “Florida has adequate safeguards in place to ensure that no person is wrongfully executed.”
Bush has also promised not to sign a death warrant “until relevant DNA evidence that could exonerate the inmate has been considered.”