Florida

Florida

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Florida's Narrow Interpretation of Mental Competency Leads to New Date

UPDATE: Ferguson was executed on Aug. 5. Florida has set an August 5 execution date for John Ferguson, a death row inmate who has suffered from severe mental illness for more than four decades. As far back as 1965, Ferguson was found to experience visual hallucinations. He was sent to mental institutions and was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, delusional, and aggressive. In 1975, a mental health doctor described Ferguson as “dangerous and cannot be released under any circumstances.” Nevertheless, he was released less than a year later. Ferguson believes he is the "Prince of God" and is being executed so can save the world. Ferguson's attorneys recently filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, asserting that Florida courts have applied the wrong standard for mental competency, ignoring the current interpretation of this issue by the High Court, which requires that an inmate have a rational understanding of why he is being executed. An earlier editorial in the Tampa Bay Times opposing Ferguson's execution, agreed, “Florida is embracing an interpretation of competency for execution so pinched that it would virtually extinguish limits on executing the severely mentally ill. The state says Ferguson is aware that he is being put to death and that he committed murder, and is therefore competent to be executed.”

RECENT LEGISLATION: Florida Lawyers Challenge New Law Accelerating Executions

On June 26, lawyers in Florida filed a lawsuit challenging the 2013 Timely Justice Act, a law signed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier in June. The Act could accelerate executions by requiring the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of a Supreme Court review, provided the governor determines that the clemency process is complete. An execution must follow within 180 days. The lawsuit was filed by the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state agency that represents death row inmates during post-conviction proceedings, with more than 100 current death row inmates named as plaintiffs. The lawsuit claims that the new law is unconstitutional because it takes away the court’s powers and violates death penalty defendants’ rights to due process and equal protection. The suit stated, “The Act creates a rushed process for issuance of a likely flood of death warrants that will inundate the courts and abruptly cut off this Court’s exercise of judicial review in capital cases. If not addressed prior to its operation in practice, the process will have the unconstitutional and irreversible result of individuals being executed under a legislatively-determined judicial procedure in which violations of their constitutional rights go unresolved. Further, Florida history shows that diminished process can have tragic and irreversible consequences.” Florida leads the country in exonerations, with 24 inmates released from death row since 1973. The Timely Justice Act is scheduled to take effect on July 1.

EDITORIALS: "Gov. Scott Should Veto Bill that Speed Up Death Penalty Punishments"

A June 3 editorial in the Sun Sentinel called on Florida Governor Rick Scott (pictured) to veto the Timely Justice Act, a bill passed by the legislature earlier this year that would accelerate executions. The bill requires the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of a Supreme Court review, with an execution to follow within 180 days. According to the editorial, flaws in the system, evidenced by death row exonerations, should be sufficient reason to reject a bill that would speed up the death penalty process in the state. The law would give wrongfully convicted inmates approximately eight months to prove their innocence before facing execution. The editorial highlighted the case of former Florida death row inmate Seth Penalver, who spent a dozen years on death row before this conviction was overturned last year. Another inmate, Clemente Javier Aguirre-Jarquin, recently presented DNA evidence that could set him free, seven years after his conviction. The editors concluded, “If the Timely Justice Act were already law, he would not be alive to fight for his own justice.” Twenty four wrongfully convicted inmates have been released from death row in Florida since the mid-1970s, more than any other state in the country.  Read full editorial below.

Nation's Longest Serving Death Row Inmate Dies 40 Years After Conviction

Gary Alvord, a Florida inmate who spent more time on death row than any other inmate in the country, died on May 19 of natural causes. Alvord was 66 years old and had been sentenced to death for murder almost 40 years ago, on April 9, 1974. He suffered from schizophrenia and had no close family. Bill Sheppard, who represented Alvord for almost four decades, said, “Gary is a product of a sick system. He was a living example of why we should not have the death penalty.... I would love for the state of Florida to tell us how much money they wasted trying to kill a guy they couldn't kill. The death penalty is getting us nothing but broke.” In the time Alvord spent on death row, 75 other inmates were executed in Florida, many of whom spent half as long as he did on death row. Alvord faced execution at least twice, but his severe mental illness prevented the execution from being carried out. In 1984, he was sent to a state hospital to receive treatment for his psychiatric condition, but doctors refused to treat him, citing the ethical dilemma of making a patient well enough so he can be killed. Alvord’s final appeal expired in 1998.

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: DNA Results Indicate Death Row Inmate May Be Innocent

Lawyers for Clemente Javier Aguirre recently presented the results of DNA testing to a Florida court, casting serious doubt on his guilt.  Aguirre was sentenced to death for the murder of two women in 2006. Although the DNA evidence was available at the time of his trial, Aguirre's trial lawyer never requested testing of the crime-scene evidence. Aguirre's current lawyers said that DNA results from dozens of items did not reveal Aguirre’s blood at the crime scene. Instead, the tests found blood belonging to the daughter of one of the victims, a woman with a history of mental illnessm who may be responsible for the killings. Nina Morrison, a lawyer at the Innocence Project who is assisting with Aguirre’s case said, “It’s the rare case in which you have DNA in multiple places at the scene of a homicide showing the blood of someone other than a convicted person.”

EDITORIALS: Miami Herald Calls on Governor to Block Fast-Track Executions

An editorial in the Miami Herald called on Florida Governor Rick Scott (pictured) to veto a bill recently passed by the legislature requiring the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days after state Supreme Court review, with the execution taking place within 180 days after that. The editorial listed several death row inmates who were exonerated after spending more than 10 years on death row, and noted, “All of them might have been executed if the legislation that's heading to the governor's desk had been the law.” The paper urged Gov. Scott to block the legislation and wait for a committee appointed by the Florida Supreme Court to study the state’s judicial system to release its findings. The editorial concluded, “If the point is to reduce the stay on death row to less than a decade, it's the wrong focus. The real problem is sloppy justice, cases where evidence is hidden, for instance, and current state rules that allow judges to impose the death penalty without even a unanimous jury vote.” Read the Editorial below.

FOREIGN NATIONALS: Information About Foreign Citizens on U.S. Death Rows

New information on foreign nationals facing the death penalty in the U.S. is now available through Mark Warren of Human Rights Research. This DPIC page includes information on 143 foreign citizens from 37 countries on state and federal death rows. California has the most (59 inmates), followed by Texas (24), and Florida (23). Many of these inmates were not informed of their right to contact their country's represenatives under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a treaty the U.S. has ratified and relies upon to protect its citizens when they travel abroad. Thirty-one (31) foreign nationals have been executed in the U.S. since 1976, many of whom were not properly informed of their rights under this treaty. Among countries, Mexico has the largest number (60) of its citizens on death row in the U.S. 

EDITORIALS: "Florida's Death Penalty Needs a Fresh Look"

A recent editorial in Florida’s Tampa Bay Times called for lawmakers to study the state’s death penalty because of its high number of exonerations and death sentences. Using information from DPIC's recent 2012 Year End Report, the editorial noted that 2012 marked the second consecutive year in which the state led the country in new death sentences. The editorial suggested that one of the reasons for these numbers was likely Florida's failure to require a unanimous jury recommendation for death sentences, one of the few states in the country with such a policy. While implying that the better path might be complete abolition of the death penalty, the editorial called for changes in the sentencing process, saying that its current procedures are haphazard and error-prone.  The paper concluded, “Florida is long overdue for a comprehensive look at its death penalty system… It is time to better understand why the state imposes the penalty disproportionately and ends up exonerating so many. Basic justice demands it.”  Read the full editorial below.

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