Death row bill: Florida bill to cut costs, time in death row appeals moves to Gov. Rick Scott for OK

TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Joe Negron's plan to cut down costly, lengthy appeals by death row inmates only needs the governor's signature to become law.

The Senate on Monday cleared HB 7083, dubbed the "Timely Justice Act," in a 28-10 vote. The Stuart Republican's proposal adjusts a variety of rules to limit appeals on death row cases. The changes deal with inmates who have already lost an automatic appeal with the Florida Supreme Court.

As evidence, Negron has credited a Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation that found post-conviction appeals can cost about $1 million per condemned inmate. Those inmates stay on death row for 14 years on average before an execution, Scripps found.

The House passed the bill last week by a 84-34 margin, and it's headed to Gov. Rick Scott's desk next.

"It has no provisions taking away anyone's right to bring a claim of innocence at any time at all," Negron said. "But it does streamline the procedures while protecting due process for all."

Some Democrats opposed the bill, saying that inmates deserve to exhaust all their options before receiving the ultimate punishment. Florida also has exonerated 24 inmates on death row, the most in the country, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

"I don't see the reason for the swiftness, especially with DNA evidence today that can exonerate persons who have been convicted and were waiting on death row from years ago," said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach.

Scott hasn't indicated if he'll sign the bill. But he got a look at how the process can stretch out before he signed David Alan Gore's death warrant in February 2012.

Gore, a Vero Beach serial killer who finally was executed April 12 last year, spent 28 years on death row. Gore was convicted of killing six women, including the 1983 murder of 17-year-old Lynn Elliott from Vero Beach. Gov. Robert Martinez had signed death warrants for Gore in 1987 and 1988.

It cost taxpayers an estimated $664,300 to house Gore during decades of appeals.

Gore's appellate challenges, which included 10 court hearings and a second sentencing procedure in 1992, added another $210,000 bill for taxpayers.

As of March 3, there were 404 people on death row in Florida, more than any state except California. There are 155 death row inmates who have been in custody for more than 20 years, and ten have been there more than 35 years, a House bill analysis states.

From 1976 to 2012, Florida executed 74 people. There were 492 executions in Texas, 109 in Virginia, and 102 in Oklahoma over the same time frame. Florida executed two death row inmates in 2011 and three in 2012.

Negron's bill would set standards for determining lawyers' conflicts of interest; bar appeals and sets limits on court time extensions in certain circumstances; spell out that the governor has to sign death warrants within six months of the end of the executive clemency process; and re-establish the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel office in North Florida, where currently private attorneys are court-appointed to represent death row inmates.

Negron said he worked with the Florida Supreme Court on his bill, so there will be no constitutionality issues. There also is $50,000 set aside in the budget to create a website that tracks all the death row cases.

Rep. Larry Lee Jr., D-Port St. Lucie, was the only Treasure Coast lawmaker to oppose the bill. Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, did not vote on the measure.

About the investigation

--Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in October published a series of stories based on a three-month investigation that reviewed the appeals and case files of death row prisoners convicted of murder in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties.

--The reports look into why it takes dozens of years for some inmates to complete their appeals and be executed, and how much it costs taxpayers.

--In October, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said lawmakers for years have sought to tighten death penalty appeals to move cases faster and reduce costs to taxpayers.

--A bill he's proposed, the Timely Justice Act, cites Scripps research that shows the time it takes to present a capital case on appeal in state and federal court is a major factor in determining how long it takes for an inmate to progress through the judicial system.

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Special Needs Students

The Florida Senate has passed a bill that would give parents a greater say in shaping the education plans for their special-needs children.

The measure (SB 1108) cleared the Senate on a 39-0 vote Monday. Similar legislation is being considered in the House with time winding down in the 60-day session, which ends Friday.

The Senate-passed bill gives parents a greater say in shaping the curriculum and individual education plan for their special-needs children.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, says that increasing the options for the parents will give the students a better chance to succeed. Gardiner is the bill's lead sponsor along

with Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

The bill also ensures that students with disabilities have access to the professionals and resources that will best serve them.

Medicaid expansion

The legislative showdown on Medicaid expansion alternatives is heating up with the Senate signaling it's not backing down from a plan to accept billions of federal dollars.

The Senate amended the House proposal Monday, essentially wiping out the House's plan and replacing it with its own, with just days left in the session. The Senate still has to vote on the bill, but even if it passes, it's unlikely the House will agree.

The Senate wants to take more than $50 billion in federal funds and give it to roughly 1.1 million residents to purchase private health insurance.

But the House doesn't want to accept money tied to the Affordable Care Act and has passed a bill that would use $237 million in state funds to cover about 115,000 residents.

Mortgage Foreclosure

The Florida House voted overwhelmingly Monday to speed up the residential mortgage foreclosure process in a state that was swamped by a rising number of homes taken back by banks during the housing crisis.

Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said her bill preserves due-process rights for distressed homeowners while trying to stimulate Florida's real-estate market by getting foreclosed property "back into the stream of commerce."

The measure (HB 87) passed on an 87-26 vote but its fate is uncertain. The Senate is considering similar legislation as Florida lawmakers face a Friday deadline to pass bills in their 60-day session.

The Sunshine State was one of the hardest hit by the national collapse in the real estate market that began in 2008. Those foreclosure cases quickly swamped an already overworked court system.

"Until we do something regarding the foreclosure issue in this state, lenders will continue to be hurt, borrowers will continue to be hurt and the economy of the state of Florida will continue to be hurt," said Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville.

The legislation would make banks prove in more detail that they own a mortgage or explain why they can't prove ownership. It also creates a process for others besides mortgage-holders to ask the court to speed up foreclosure cases.

Another key provision would reduce the statute of limitations, or amount of time, for banks to go after foreclosed homeowners on deficiency judgments — from five years to one year. Deficiencies are the difference between the money obtained from selling a foreclosed home and what the original homeowner still owes on it.

The measure also would allow senior, or semi-retired, judges to hear foreclosure matters to relieve the backlog of cases.

Opponents said the proposal is tilted against troubled homeowners already being hounded by banks and their attorneys.

"For many of us, the purchase of a home is the most significant financial investment we'll ever make," said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. "It's where we raise our kids. And I think we have to be extremely careful in regulating foreclosure. Many of these provisions go too far."

Other critics warned the bill doesn't provide enough safeguards for homeowners who were wrongly foreclosed on.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, spoke up for the bill. He said it seeks to help those homeowners who are struggling to pay their mortgages but are surrounded by foreclosed homes, a situation that drives down neighborhood property values.

"Where is the relief for those people who are sitting in their houses under water on their mortgage begging for relief?" he said. "This foreclosure problem cannot go on for the next five, six, seven years. We must provide relief to those people who are in their homes."

The debate comes amid signs that the nation's foreclosure crisis is abating amid an improving housing market.

The number of U.S. homes repossessed by lenders last month fell to the lowest level in more than five years. While some states still saw increases in homes taken back by banks, nationally home repossessions fell 3 percent in March from the previous month and were down 21 percent from a year earlier, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. said recently.

Cyberbullying

A bill meant to crack down on cyberbullying has cleared the Florida Senate and is headed to Gov. Rick Scott.

The measure was passed by the Senate on a 37-0 vote Monday. It cleared the House earlier, so its next stop is the governor's desk.

The bill (HB 609) would expand the authority of Florida's public schools to discipline students for cyberbullying done through use of a school computer, at the site of a school-sponsored activity or on a school bus.

Supporters say teachers and school administrators need a stronger hand to protect students from online attacks.

The bill defines "cyberbullying" as harassment through the use of computers, technology or electronic communications.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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