jason_looney.jpgguerry_hertz.jpgTALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – For Janet Spears, the waiting is the hardest part. Her only son, Keith, and his girlfriend, Melanie King, were robbed, murdered and set afire in their Wakulla County home in 1997. Two of the three men convicted in the deaths, Jason Looney and Guerry Hertz, have been on death row since 2000.

Today, Spears wonders whether she'll live long enough to see her son's killers put to death. "It's a living torture,'' said Spears, 65. "It's something the family thinks about every day. There's no reason for it being this long.''

Florida lawmakers, also tired of the delays in carrying out death sentences, are trying to speed up the process.

Bills now in the House and Senate would create tighter timeframes for appeals and post-conviction motions, make it harder for inmates to dismiss their lawyers, and heighten the legal standards for pleading certain arguments.

Florida has 405 inmates on the death row, more than any other state except California, which has 724. It takes an average of 13 years to get from sentencing to execution.

But legislators will have to walk a high wire between speed and fairness. Twenty-four men have been exonerated from Florida's death row since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

"If we can't get that right, what confidence do we have that any part of our criminal justice system is working?'' said Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Fort Walton Beach Republican sponsoring the Timely Justice Act in the House.

At the same time, "all of us can agree it should not take decades to  effectively and efficiently deliver justice,'' he said.

Just how long legislators think it should take is unclear. The House bill's wording that originally said appeals should be resolved "within 5 years'' was changed to "as quickly as possible.''

For death row convicts, the legal process is exhaustive.

After sentencing, a defendant is entitled to a direct appeal to the state Supreme Court that focuses on possible flaws in the trial _ mistaken rulings on evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, incorrect jury instructions. The high court has two years to rule, after which the inmate can petition the U.S. Supreme Court.

If denied, usually lengthy post-conviction proceedings begin in the original trial court.

That process reviews collateral claims, such as ineffective defense attorneys or discovery of new evidence. Trial judges must resolve such challenges, which require multiple hearings, and almost always deny relief. Then those decisions can be appealed back to the state Supreme Court.

And after state post-conviction proceedings are exhausted, a defendant can ask a federal court for a writ of habeas corpus. A judge must then determine whether the inmate's imprisonment violates federal law. That, too, can be appealed to a federal appellate court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Florida Legislature tried a previous overhaul, the Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000. It was shot down by the Florida Supreme Court, which called it an "unconstitutional encroachment'' on the judiciary's rulemaking power. The high court then issued its own rule changes, which weren't strict enough for lawmakers.

The court, mindful of the latest bills, recently formed a committee of judges to again look into the capital punishment system and make its own recommendations.

"I know the court agrees with this mutual goal of moving these cases along fairly but expeditiously,'' said Steve Metz, the Florida Bar's liaison between the courts and the Legislature. "There are improvements that can be made.''

Because it affects court rulemaking, Gaetz's bill would require a constitutional revision needing approval by 60 percent of voters on the next year's statewide ballot. If the court can come up with its own faster timeframe, Gaetz said he'd strip that section out of his proposal.

"If there is not swift action to issue quicker rulings, I'll be back with a constitutional amendment next year,'' he said.

But Democratic lawmakers, public defenders and criminal defense lawyers are raising concerns about improving the pace of executions in light of constitutional rights and actual innocence claims. Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, challenged Gaetz at a recent legislative committee meeting on the bill.

"Would you agree that, in a civilized society, hastening death might not be as appropriate as making sure that when you've killed them you've killed them for the right reason?'' Rouson asked.

Gaetz replied: "The most important thing is we never execute an innocent person. I don't think the legislation before you increases that risk in any way.''

Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, isn't so sure.

Referring to those who've been exonerated, he said, "If you shorten the process, those people probably would have been executed.''

Gaetz's effort has one important supporter in the Senate: His father, Senate President Don Gaetz.

"We have a position in Florida that death is an appropriate penalty for the most heinous of crimes,'' Don Gaetz said. People sentenced to death should be allowed to exhaust all of their defenses, but "when that's over, it's over.''

In the meantime, Janet Spears keeps counting the days.

"I once promised my son if anything happened to him I'd see to it that the person who did it will pay,'' she said. "But our hands are tied.''

*Pictured above are  Jason Looney and Guerry Hertz.