By Gary Blankenship
The legislative agency that compiles data on death penalty cases and oversees the state’s two capital collateral regional counsel offices has been shut down by the Legislature.
The Commission on Capital Cases not only had its funding ended, but lawmakers also repealed the laws creating the commission.
“This move is part of an ongoing effort to examine and streamline the role of the joint legislative offices and committees,” said Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
The commission oversees the two CCRC offices, which are appointed for indigent death row inmates to handle their collateral appeals. It also managed a registry of private attorneys who are appointed for those appeals when the CCRC has a conflict. In addition, registry attorneys handle all cases in the northern region of the state in a pilot program begun several years ago that closed the CCRC office that operated there and turned all cases over to private lawyers.
The commission also compiles data and information about death penalty cases and according to its now-repealed enabling statute, “the commission shall develop statistics to identify trends and changes in case management and case processing, identify and evaluate unproductive points of delay, and generally evaluate the way cases are progressing. The commission shall report these findings to the Legislature by January 1 of each year.”
The Legislature assigned the Justice Administrative Commission to handle the registry attorneys and let the capital commission’s other duties lapse. The CCRC offices must still, however, submit regular reports to the Senate President and Speaker of the House.
“The Legislature agonized over cutting many worthy programs, and we understand that, in this economy, cuts have to be made. The commissioners and staff of the Commission on Capital Cases have worked diligently to ensure each death-sentenced inmate has competent counsel and the interests of the families of the victims are preserved,” said Roger Maas, executive director of the commission, in a statement. “We are the only large state that has developed a website available to the public that includes a comprehensive, detailed court history of every death penalty case. Our website has been visited over 800,000 times by families of the victims, attorneys, judges, other state and federal offices, the media, law enforcement, and other interested persons.”
The office also sponsored an advanced death penalty seminar, which over the years was attended by more than 1,000 judges and attorneys. That seminar, because of a lack of funds, has not been held for the past two to three years. (Under Supreme Court guidelines, attorneys and judges handling death penalty cases must have special training and meet certain experience requirements.)
“As retired Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead said, ‘Because of the progressive and effective reforms made by the Legislature and the accomplishments of the Commission on Capital Cases in carrying out these reforms, Florida is now recognized throughout the country as a model in the administration of justice in capital cases,’” Maas said. “We hope our legacy will have a lasting and positive impact in improving the death penalty process throughout the nation.”
Rep. James Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, is the current chair of the commission, which is made up of legislators and judges. He is critical of closing the commission and blamed what he called the anti-court sentiments of House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.
“It was not just defunded, it was repealed,” Waldman said. “The law creating the commission was repealed so at the end of June, the commission goes away.”
He said he’s particularly concerned because of reduced oversight for registry attorneys and the CCRCs. Several years ago, the Legislature, at the urging of then-Gov. Jeb Bush, closed the northern CCRC office, leaving two others open, and turned all the cases over to registry attorneys. A couple of years later, then-Justice Raoul Cantero told the Commission on Capital Cases that while some of the replacement registry attorneys were doing good jobs, many were doing substandard work. That led to extensive discussions and increasing oversight for registry attorneys.
Waldman said he wanted the commission to back reopening the northern CCRC office, a subject that was raised at a commission meeting in March.
“We’re dealing with people’s lives, and it’s something we need to have oversight with, and we don’t,” he said. “All of the attorneys and the staff in the capital collateral regional counsels [offices] are very qualified, but there should still be oversight in this very important process, and at the same time we should have oversight over the registry attorneys.”
There were calls this year for reviewing the state’s entire death penalty system, and Waldman said that’s something he might have wanted to have the commission look into. But closing the commission, he said, was a way to stop any such examination.
“I think that the Legislature doesn’t want the information or to talk about the death penalty and whether that is the proper way to go,” Waldman said. “I think you’ve lost a good vehicle to educate the governor, the [Senate] president and the [House] speaker [about death penalty issues].”