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Supreme Court may let inmates on death row become their own defense attorneys

Supreme Court may let inmates on death row become their own defense attorneys
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Supreme Court may let inmates on death row become their own defense attorneys.

Despite resistance from defense attorneys, prosecutors and mental-health advocacy organizations, the Florida Supreme Court is contemplating a proposal that would enable death row inmates to represent themselves in certain court proceedings.

The proposal, which focuses on circuit court hearings that occur after suspects have been convicted and condemned to death, was set for a hearing on Feb. 10 by the justices last week.

Defendants’ “post-conviction” processes sometimes center on whether they had appropriate legal assistance during their trials or whether newly found evidence may clear them.

The proposal, which was presented in May, has sparked resistance from a wide spectrum of organisations who claim that death row convicts, including many inmates with mental problems are not qualified to represent themselves in the often-complicated processes.

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According to a document filed in August by the Florida Mental Health Advocacy Coalition, “despite major hurdles to their capacity to fully engage in capital processes, Florida law does not shield capital defendants with serious mental illness from execution.”

“Even for the most experienced lawyers, this difficulty is exacerbated in capital post-conviction, a particularly difficult portion of the capital procedure. It is also a capital defendant’s last chance to persuade a judge that they should not be executed. This fact is ignored by the proposed modifications which must be rejected.”

In September, five state attorneys filed comments opposing the proposed change. State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle of Miami-Dade County stated that offenders “could adequately represent themselves in a capital post-conviction environment.” The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers shared this viewpoint.

The defense attorneys’ organization argued in October that “a person condemned to death who wishes to go pro se cannot be expected to have the knowledge and legal skills that this (Supreme) Court expects of a counsel who would represent that defendant.”

“A high number of convicts on Florida’s death row have mental health issues, which adds to the difficulties of self-representation.”

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The proposal makes no mention of why the Supreme Court is contemplating the change. However, Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented from the section of the rule prohibiting death row inmates from representing themselves in such cases.

In a short dissent, Canady, who is now the chief justice, stated that he did not accept “preventing defendants in capital post-conviction processes from defending themselves.”


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