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Florida Lawyers, FSU Debate Death Penalty Woes

Juan Melendez speaks with some authority when he talks about the need to investigate wrongful convictions and make sure that everyone on death row really should be there.

He knows many of the men on Florida’s death row. He was once one of them.

“Believe me my friends, some of them are innocent,” said Melendez.

Freed in 2002 after 17 years, eight months and one day in prison when he was cleared of the murder for which he was convicted, Melendez now works to stop states from wrongfully executing the innocent and thinks the Legislature ought to at least look at a 2006 report by Florida lawyers and the American Bar Association that called for several changes to the way the death penalty is applied here.

The report made recommendations that ranged from creating a commission to investigate wrongful convictions and one to review factual claims of innocence to adopting new standards governing the qualifications and compensation of post-conviction attorneys. It also called for developing protocols for the capital charging decision, redrafting jury sentencing instructions, requiring unanimous jury verdicts for death sentences and further studying racial disparities in capital punishment.

But lawmakers have not considered any major death penalty reforms over the past few years.

Melendez spoke Wednesday as part of a panel of advocates, professors and lawyers trying to bring attention to the three-year old report, and push for a look at what they say are inconsistencies and injustices in the system, including racial and socio-economic disparity in death penalty cases. According to the ABA, there have been 22 death row cases since 1973 that have been overturned.

The forum was put on by the Florida State University law school in connection with the ABA.

Members of the panel aren’t calling for abolishing the death penalty.

“They're not recommendations for or against the death penalty,” said former ABA President Sandy D'Alemberte, who is also a former Florida State University president. “They're just recommendations of how to improve the administration of the death penalty in Florida.”

Harry Shorstein, a former state attorney from Jacksonville who served on the ABA commission, is in favor of the death penalty, noting that he could never be elected if he were against it. But he acknowledged there were problems in the system. He said he would seek the death penalty less than a third of the time, but was getting death penalty verdicts more than that.

Former Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Harry Singletary said he too had no problem that the death penalty was on the books, but said over time, he has realized there are several problems with the system as many people have been wrongly convicted.

“If you're going to take somebody's life, that's an irrevocable sanction,” Singletary said.

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