Like most people, my adolescent years were marked by occasional philosophical conflicts with my parents. However, I grew up on a ranch, so some of the contentious issues might seem foreign to others.
For instance, it used to bug me that while tromping around the woods, my Dad insisted I keep using my single-shot .22 rather than his semi-automatic version. As is often the case, it took a few years to realize his motive wasn’t to crush my dreams and steal my joy. He was teaching me that claiming the responsibility of shooting a rifle means learning how to shoot it responsibly. That means shooting straight, with full awareness of surroundings and the potential implications of every squeeze of the trigger.
When you shoot you want to hit a target – obviously. If you want to hit a target, you can either shoot straight or you can shoot fast and often.
Shooting straight is hard. It takes effort, patience, and dedication. It requires you to develop accuracy, learn to control your breathing, pay attention to your surroundings, and choose your shot carefully. My single-shot was made for this approach.
On the other hand, shooting fast is easy and appealing. Instead of skill, practice, or patience, it only requires bullets. Without all that tedious concern with accuracy, you simply shoot enough times that you eventually hit the target…and a lot of other things as well. Dad had strong opinions about “fast shooters.” He viewed their careless mindset and reckless behavior as a danger to everyone.
During the last week of April 2013, the Florida legislature passed a bill meant to increase efficiency in the process of death row executions by setting time limits and decreasing options for appeals. Citing the cost of keeping inmates on death row for decades and the extended lack of closure for the families of victims, Republican lawmakers were able to get this bill through the House and Senate with overwhelming support.
In the minds of some, should Governor Rick Scott sign the “Timely Justice Act” into law this month, Florida will hit several targets. They’ll hit the target of reducing the high cost associated with lengthy stays on death row. They’ll hit the target of bringing “swift justice” to the state’s worst criminals. They’ll hit the target of bringing closure to the families of the victims.
However, there is a major problem. This bill and it’s proponents are rejecting hard work and accuracy, instead embracing the careless mindset of “shoot fast and shoot often.” Their lack of concern for accuracy is going to increase the number of targets hit, but it will also increase the number of wrong and unintended targets hit. And that is unacceptable.
The bill is not about “Timely Justice,” it is about swift execution, regardless of innocence or guilt.
The death penalty currently represents the ultimate and final form of justice applied to perpetrators of extreme violence and evil in 32 states. Full disclosure, I abhor the death penalty. I don’t find it to be a convincing definition of justice, but rather the final sign that justice and reconciliation have eluded us.
But my feelings about the death penalty don’t matter at this point. The issue on the table, which is going to be decided in the next couple weeks, is this bill to execute people more quickly in the state of Florida. Even by the current definition of justice, the Timely Justice Act is a direct affront to justice.
If we claim to be a just society, and executing perpetrators is our form of justice, then we are obligated to do the hard work and refuse the temptation to be fast shooters. Accuracy is nonnegotiable for justice, particularly where executions are concerned. And this bill decreases accuracy.
It must not be signed into law.
What is so dangerous about this bill in Florida?
Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, Florida has executed 76 people.1 During the same time period a whopping 24 people, the most in the nation, have been exonerated after sentencing. This one state represents 17% of the nation’s 142 cases of death row exonerations.2 And that figure doesn’t take into account those whose death sentences were reduced or commuted.
This is a state that has one erroneous death sentence exonerated for every three people executed. The people of Florida should be enraged that their lawmakers would try to speed up a process that they can’t perform accurately at a slower pace.
You don’t need to be opposed to the death penalty to oppose this bill. The only reason you should support this bill is if you have no problem executing innocent people. It’s easy to get caught up thinking about the one’s who get away with murder – or take advantage of the system. Proponents of this bill will definitely play up the need to be “tough on crime.” But we need to remember:
- With this bill, the system is still broken, it’s just faster. That means there is less time to correct mistakes, with too little being done to avoid making the mistakes in the first place. While the bill attempts to address issues of incompetent representation – particularly in court appointed attorneys – it doesn’t say much about how they are going to pay these people. Interesting…this is normally the complaint we hear the Republicans leveling at Democrats.
- Removing/reducing the hope for appeal doesn’t just block the guilty who are taking advantage. It also blocks the falsely convicted scrambling to save their lives.
- Don’t Worry: Wealthy people (innocent or guilty) will still get off the hook. Its only the poor, the one’s who are at the mercy of court appointed representation, who really need to worry…But at least now we don’t have to listen to them complain for so long, right?
This bill is not concerned with accuracy, it is concerned with a particular outcome, namely, executing somebody…whether they committed the crime or not. As Sen. Robert Bradley, R-Orange Park has made clear, “This isn’t about innocence or guilt, it’s about timely justice.” Other than the ironic misuse of the word “justice,” I couldn’t have said it better…but he was supposedly supporting the bill with that statement.
Sen. Bradley’s statement is startlingly (if unintentionally) honest, incredibly disturbing, and wholly inaccurate. In the minds of those who choose to shoot fast instead of straight, accuracy and outcome may be separate issues. But that just confirms my Dad’s beliefs that fast shooters operate from a mindset of carelessness.
Justice which can somehow be separated from innocence or guilt is a new definition of justice altogether; neither the one that many of us long for, nor the one we currently have. This bill is pursuing a facade of justice, a hollow victory based on someone repaying blood for blood, and that person’s guilt or innocence in the matter is not the primary concern.
“But,” you may say, “they have already been found guilty!”
Yes, they have been found guilty in a state with a documented history of unfairness and inaccuracy in their death penalty system. In a 2006 analysis of Florida’s death penalty laws, procedures and practices, an American Bar Association (ABA) report states, “the State of Florida fails to comply or is only in partial compliance with many of these recommendations and that many of these shortcomings are substantial. More specifically, the Team is convinced that there is a need to improve the fairness and accuracy in the death penalty system… The Florida Death Penalty Assessment Team has identified a number of areas in which Florida’s death penalty system falls short in the effort to afford every capital defendant fair and accurate procedures.”3
Florida is also the only remaining state in which a simple majority vote of the jury is sufficient to sentence someone to death. Five members of a jury can remain unconvinced without stopping the sentence. That detail becomes even more disconcerting when we consider that the previously mentioned report from the ABA found that “many Florida capital jurors do not understand their role and responsibilities when deciding whether to impose a death sentence.”4 Among other signs of confusion, “36 percent of interviewed Florida capital jurors incorrectly believed that they were required to sentence the defendant to death if they found the defendant’s conduct to be “heinous, vile, or depraved”¬¬ beyond a reasonable doubt”5 (emphasis mine).
And yet, even in cases where the jury doesn’t recommend the death penalty, the practice of judicial override (used 166 times between 1972 and 1999) in Florida may mean the death sentence is given anyway. The 2006 ABA report cites a study showing that “trial judges take into account the potential ‘repercussions of an unpopular decision in a capital case,’ which encourages judges in judicial override states to override jury recommendations of life, ‘especially so in the run up to judicial elections.”6
There are reasons that we have an appeal process in our courts. We’re not talking about staying after school for detention, or passing the 30-day window for returning your item to the store. We’re talking about the life and death of a human being. That warrants some caution before taking irreversible action. This is part of the price we pay in order to continue claiming to be a nation grounded in things like truth, justice and the sanctity of life.
This bill threatens to void those claims.
Among the 24 cases in Florida, the average time from sentencing to exoneration has been 7.5 years (national average is 9.8 years).7 If this bill becomes law, without the immediate provision of new evidence, executions will happen in a matter of months.
Even if we stretch that out to one year, only 2 of the Florida 24 would come close to that window. Two. As in, just two people more than zero.
If this bill had been in place since 1976, how many of these twenty-four exonerated people would have been executed? We can’t know for sure, but the odds for twenty-two of them are pretty bad and the odds for the other two aren’t great. At least two people who received commuted sentences (as opposed to the full exoneration of the 24) after new evidence came to light would have fallen well outside that 1-year lifespan.8
No other state in the nation has more local data to comprise an informed notion of how long it can take to fully investigate and sort these matters out. If we are going to snuff out the life of a person, we cannot afford to leave any lingering doubt as to whether it is the right person. Again, in a just society, accuracy is nonnegotiable.
But Florida representatives are apparently comfortable with not knowing. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who sponsored the bill in the House, glibly stated, “Only God can judge, but we sure can set up the meeting.” This statement artfully combines a misapplication of Scripture, poor use of logic and an apparent belief in the incompetence of the judicial system. If only God can judge, then why have courts at all? Why make laws?
About a month after the “kill ‘em all, let God sort it out” comment, Rep. Gaetz summoned the power of the twittersphere to deflect his callous lack of concern. Here is the full text of his May 30 modified tweet (MT: which is reposting a version or a section of someone else’s tweet, usually with a comment or response):
Any of them mention the victims or their families? MT:”@TroyKinsey: A death penalty critic’s blasting @mattgaetz’ timely justice act.”9
It’s interesting to note the selective nature of this MT. Here’s the part of @TroyKinsey’s tweet that doesn’t make the modified cut: “Noting 8 inmates were exonerated after more than a decade on death row.”
The righteous condescension of Gaetz’ modified retweet is rivaled only by its accidental irony. This tweet was in response to a critic mentioning 8 people exonerated after MORE THAN A DECADE on death row. Are those the victims and families to whom he referred?
I’m not a lawmaker, I’m a minister. I know a lot about grief. And unfortunately, I also know about people using emotional ploys to kill conversation. There are certain things you can say that make it very difficult for the other person to argue. Appealing to the emotional trauma of families who have had loved ones snatched away from them by a murderer is one of those hard-to-reply-to arguments.
I don’t mean in anyway to sound insensitive to the grief of the victims’ families, but the fact that their grief is even being brought up in a conversation about falsely convicted people suggests exploitation of their grief to push another agenda.
Rep Gaetz doesn’t seem to appreciate how inaccuracy in the death penalty system creates victims – though my suspicion is that he simply will not admit it publicly.
Speeding up an inaccurate process will lead to fewer exonerations10 and less time on death row, thus simultaneously lowering the cost to the state and lowering public awareness of inaccurate sentences.
But the victims are created whether the government acknowledges them or not. I understand grief and I have a great deal of painful experience grieving with those who grieve. I have seen tremendous grief and longing for justice – as well as insatiable thirst for revenge. I’ve sat and visited with inmates – some who were behind bars because of their own stupid, broken decisions, as well as those behind bars because the justice system is just as broken.
I’ve also wept with the families torn apart by tragedy, violence and evil – which is true of the families of both victims and perpetrators. All are in tremendous pain. All long for justice. And the people of God are sent to stand with those who cry for justice and lend their own voices to the chorus.
For those who have ears to hear, the cry for justice is the most piercing cry of all. And those who hear that cry are compelled to see justice done. This is as it should be.
But this bill isn’t offering justice. It’s offering retribution. Worse yet, it’s offering retribution with only moderate concern for guilt. The Timely Justice Act should more appropriately be called The Scapegoat Act.
No, the issue at stake in this bill isn’t justice at all. The justice-flavored additives are masking a concoction of “tough on crime” resume building, bottom-line finances, and deflecting attention from the real problems in Florida’s justice system.
Why have so many people been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death? That seems like an important question to answer and resolve before attempting to increase the rate of executions.11
The system is broken; no one is denying that reality. The fast shooter mindset may want to deal with a broken system by executing people before every possible doubt has been removed, but that will never be construed as justice by a just society.
I’m sorry Representative Gaetz, decreasing the accuracy of justice under the guise of concern for victims is misleading, at best, when your state’s inaccuracy is already leading the nation in creating victims. The stakes are too high, we cannot afford to get this wrong. We cannot lower the accuracy of this process even more and still pretend to be a just society.
Governor Rick Scott, I implore you, in the name of justice, please veto the Scapegoat Act.
Bret Wells, D.Min.
For more information on the death penalty in the United States, visit the Death Penalty Information Center website. You can also read the 400+ page ABA report on Florida’s death penalty system, or read this report written by Christopher Slobogin, chair of the Florida assessment team and Milton Underwood chair in Law, Vanderbilt University Law School. You can also visit the Florida Department of Corrections website to see more statistics about executions in the state.
Dr. Bret Wells is the Director of Operations for the Missional Wisdom Foundation, where he oversees and is a member of the teaching faculty for the Academy for Missional Wisdom. He is also the minister of The Gathering in Burleson, TX.
He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology as well as an MA in Christian Ministry and a BS in Psychology and Christian Ministry from Abilene Christian University. Bret is also certified as a Christian Coach through Mission Alive and CoachNet.
1 Florida Department of Corrections website. http://www.dc.state.fl.us/oth/deathrow/execlist.html, Accessed June 3, 2013.
2 Qualifications for inclusion in this list of exonerations on Death Penalty Information Center website. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-list-those-freed-death-row. Accessed June 3, 2013:
“Defendants must have been convicted, sentenced to death and subsequently either-
- Been acquitted of all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row, or
- Had all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row dismissed by the prosecution, or
- Been granted a complete pardon based on evidence of innocence.”
3 Florida Death Penalty Assessment Team, American Bar Association, “Evaluating Fairness and Accuracy in State Death Penalty Systems: The Florida Death Penalty Assessment Report,” September 2006. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/aba/fldpreport.pdf, Accessed June 4, 2013, iii.
4 Ibid, vi.
6 Ibid, vii.
7 Death Penalty Information Center, website, “Innocence: List of Those Freed From Death Row,” http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-list-those-freed-death-row. Accessed June 3, 2013.
8 Sonia Jacobs, convicted in 1976, released in 1992. Joseph Spaziano, convicted in 1976, still in Florida prison for other crimes. Information provided on Death Penalty Information Center website, “Additional Innocence Information,” under “A. Partial Innocence – Conviction Reduced” http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/additional-innocence-information#Released. Accessed June 3, 2013.
9 Matt Gaetz twitter account, https://twitter.com/mattgaetz. Accessed June 3, 2013.
10 Closing doors on the appeal process could not only lead to more posthumous exonerations, it could also mean that innocence is never formally recognized. As the Death Penalty Information Center states, “There is no way to tell how many of the over 1,000 people executed since 1976 may also have been innocent. Courts do not generally entertain claims of innocence when the defendant is dead. Defense attorneys move on to other cases where clients’ lives can still be saved.” http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/executed-possibly-innocent. Accessed June 3, 2013.
11 The 400+ page Florida Death Penalty Assessment Report certainly sheds some light on how this happened at least prior to 2006. In addition to the juror confusion and simple majority vote issues already stated, the report also focused on inadequate compensation for conflict trial counsel in death penalty cases, lack of qualified and properly monitored Capital Collateral Registry Counsel, inadequate compensation for Capital Collateral Registry Attorneys, the practice of judicial override, lack of transparency in the clemency process, racial disparities in Florida’s capital sentencing, and geographic disparities in Florida’s capital sentencing. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/aba/fldpreport.pdf . Accessed June 3, 2013, iv-viii.