EDITORS NOTE: Reporters Melissa E. Holsman and Zaimarie De Guzman have compiled an in-depth special report for TCPalm.com of local death penalty cases and issues surrounding Florida’s death row. The report, titled Treasure Coast Death Row, is definitely worth a look and contains a huge amount of information. This is one of the articles from that report.
Amid sharp criticism of a state agency tasked with representing condemned prisoners appealing a death sentence, local prosecutors and two legislators want a new law that authorizes judges to decide how much is spent investigating an inmate’s legal challenge.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl said he believes judges would be better stewards of state resources rather than the state-funded offices of Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, known as CCRC, whose specialized attorneys seek relief for death row clients by litigating within a legal process that can last for decades.
Bakkedahl proposed the legislative action in response to a three-month Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation reviewing death row appeals, which records show take about 14 years to complete. Complex appeals can take decades to resolve, and ultimately cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses. That’s in addition to a daily cost of around $65 to house a prisoner on Florida’s death row, which can exceed $332,150 during 14 years of appeals.
Currently, regional counsel lawyers and court-appointed private attorneys have discretion to hire just about any physician, consultant or social worker they believe is required to properly investigate a post-conviction appeal. The experts’ services are paid for out of “due process” funds set aside from the agency’s state-funded budget.
Bakkedahl wants that to change.
He specifically accused the regional counsel of squandering money by needlessly hiring multiple professional witnesses for a case, and ordering unnecessary physical and mental health tests.
“If (CCRC) wants to hire a mitigation specialist or an addictionologist or a CT scan expert, let them file a motion with the court and let the court make a well reasoned decision on whether or not it’s reasonable and necessary,” Bakkedahl suggested. “Let the judge be the decision maker.”
Bakkedahl’s idea resonated with Stuart Republicans state Sen. Joe Negron, who is up for re-election, and state Rep. Will Snyder, who currently chairs the state House Judiciary Committee.
Snyder, who in August won his primary race for Martin County’s sheriff, said he believes condemned prisoners deserve to have their convictions and sentence reviewed on appeal, but agreed with Bakkedahl that lawmakers should give judges more control over how tax dollars are spent defending the appeals of death row inmates.
“What I disagree with is when the system is gamed and appeal after appeal is granted on technical grounds and they’re not substantive challenges,” Snyder said. “I agree with state attorneys’ criticism that often times there’s a disproportional amount of resources in the post-conviction process that’s weighed toward the defendant.”
Neal Dupree, director of the CCRC Fort Lauderdale office, sees things differently.
He defended how his staff of 15 attorneys allocates their $3.1 million budget, and noted they hire expert witnesses much the same way as public defenders’ offices and attorneys with the state-funded Regional Conflict Counsel, who represent indigent clients who can’t be represented by a public defender.
“Even (court-appointed private) counsels have access to funds for the hiring of experts in every case, at their discretion,” Dupree said. “CCRC should not be treated any differently than those entities.”
Dupree too, said forcing CCRC attorneys to obtain court approval before hiring experts to investigate a legal claim could cause more problems than it solves, and at a higher cost. It would be rare, he insisted, for a judge to deny a request for an expert a defendant’s appellate attorney says is needed to prove their claim. A judge’s denial could prompt additional appeal motions, he said.
“Judges do not want to be reversed,” he said, “because they failed to approve an expert request by the defense.”
Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, which represents the state against death row appeals, declined to endorse or reject the proposed legislative action.