Failing to reprimand prosecutors who commit professional misconduct is a serious problem. Executing condemned people before evidence of that misconduct has time to come out is a whole other animal.
The Florida legislature has just passed The Timely Justice Act, ironically named since it takes so many years for the injustices that cause wrongful convictions to be discovered, and which the state of Florida will now happily overlook in order to ensure more timely executions.
Florida leads the nation in death-row wrongful convictions. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 41 people have been found wrongfully convicted in the Everglade State since 1987, 8 of whom were awaiting death. A total of 24 people have been exonerated from Florida’s death row since 1973.
Of those 41, 16 people were wrongfully convicted due to ‘official misconduct’ on the part of the state: the result of government officials who “significantly abused their authority or the judicial process in a manner that contributed to the exoneree’s conviction.”
One of these 16 was Juan Melendez, convicted in 1984 of the murder of Delbert Baker in Auburndale, Florida. There was no physical evidence linking Mr. Melendez to the murder; only the word of a co-defendant who received 2 years house arrest in exchange for his testimony against Mr. Melendez.
In 2000, after numerous failed appeals and 16 years on Florida’s death row, Mr. Melendez discovered the taped confession of another man who said he murdered Mr. Baker. It turned out that this other man had made incriminating statements to prosecutors that were never turned over to the defense before trial. Mr. Melendez was finally freed from death row when a judge vacated his conviction on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct.
In criticizing the Florida bill that awaits the signature of the governor, The New York Times editorial board today recounts the story of Clemente Javier Aguirre-Jarquin who has recently presented DNA evidence that could exonerate him. These and the numerous stories like them show that, contrary to the notion put forward by Florida’s legislature to pass this bill, injustice often stays hidden unless sheer luck pries it out of the darkness.
Many of the people exonerated in Florida due to state misconduct were imprisoned for decades before a court acknowledged the state’s errors. No state with as much official wrongdoing as this should be speeding up executions.