Death Penalty Draws Fire Report Paints Bleak Picture of Capital Punishment Sentences, Pointing out High Numbers of Errors in the Process

Article excerpt

A nationwide study revealing serious errors in many Florida and Georgia death penalty cases has prosecutors on the defensive, arguing that the report shows a bias against capital punishment.

Judges also are questioning the Columbia University School of Law study of 4,578 death penalty cases reviewed on appeals from 1973 to 1995 across the country that has fueled the furor over capital punishment.

The fact that the errors have been detected shows the system is working, says a Florida judge who helps train the state's judges in the proper way to conduct a death penalty trial.

"It doesn't have anything to do with being liberal or conservative. Any time you're dealing with the ultimate punishment, you're dealing with super due process," said Circuit Judge Stanford Blake of Dade County, chairman of the criminal justice section of the Florida Conference of Circuit Court Judges.

Errors have resulted in the freeing of 87 condemned inmates nationwide since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, including 21 from Florida and three from Georgia. They were freed on appeal for reasons ranging from exoneration after DNA testing, to trial errors including incompetent defense lawyers.

The Columbia study released June 12 reveals that 80 percent of Georgia death penalty murder cases were overturned because of reversible errors from 1973 to 1995. Florida had a 73 percent reversal rate during that period.

Nationwide, 68 percent of all death penalty cases were overturned.

Criminal justice experts say there is no single explanation for the high death penalty reversal rates in Florida and Georgia.

''Nothing in the criminal justice system ever has a black or white answer,'' said Pama Caraway, a Georgia Southern University criminal justice professor who has researched death penalty issues for five years.

Death penalty cases are more complicated than regular criminal trials -- meaning the potential for human error is greater, which in turn, leads to closer review on appeal. Southern states such as Florida and Georgia traditionally have a greater number of death sentences than northern states, so they also have higher reversal rates because of the volume of cases, Caraway said.

Public scrutiny also is a factor, she said.

"A lot of cases where the death sentence was reduced to life involved very controversial cases or they relied on circumstantial evidence," Caraway said. "I think the courts are just being very cautious and careful because these cases are under so much more scrutiny than in the past.''

A CLOSER LOOK

Recent Northeast Florida cases show the results of that continuing public attention.

On June 16, Andrea Hicks Jackson, who was sentenced to death four times after being convicted of killing a Jacksonville police officer, had her death sentence overturned and received life in prison. Jackson could be eligible for release in nine years.

More recently, Thomas Provenzano, who shot a bailiff in 1984, was put to death by lethal injection Wednesday at Florida State Prison in Starke. Provenzano, the fourth person executed in Florida this year, was a mentally ill killer who believed that he was Jesus Christ.

James S. Liebman, who opposes the death penalty, and two other professors who authored the national study, said the frequency and nature of the death penalty errors condemn America's capital punishment system as a failure.

But prosecutors in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia question the accuracy and motives behind the study.

They say that safeguards built into their state's judicial system have kept innocent people from being sent to Death Row. The study acknowledges that post-conviction reviews done by Florida and Georgia's supreme courts are an important part of each state's procedures to prevent innocent people from being executed.

And most of the Georgia and Florida cases that have been overturned on appeal, the prosecutors say, were sent back for resentencing -- not errors in the guilt or innocence phase of the trial. …