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Should Florida abolish the death penalty?
Frank Bentayou's picture
Frank Bentayou
Facilitator
Because of the lengthy appeals process, more Florida death-row inmates died in prison (30) since 2000 than were executed (25.) And because of mistakes made, more death-row inmates have been exonerated here (25) than in any other state. It also costs the state $51 million a year to maintain the death-penalty system - money that could be used elsewhere. See what informed people say, then tell us, what do you think?
Angela Corey's picture
Angela Corey
State Attorney, Florida's Fourth Judicial Circuit Court, Jacksonville

With regard to death-penalty protocols in Florida, I think we have excellent laws on the books that require great scrutiny of every case before capital punishment can be invoked. 
 
For one thing, we spend unlimited amounts of money testing physical evidence to make sure that it corroborates the testimony and claims made in the courtroom. In addition, we have a very carefully laid out set of rules we follow and ways to evaluate any mitigating circumstances before we seek the death penalty. 
 
Our laws demand that there’s a very lengthy and complicated process of evaluation of all aspects of the case before we can impose this punishment. The problem aspect that we do face with the death penalty~after it is imposed and the direct appeal is over~ is that we spend an inordinate amount of money on appeals that can last years.
 
But the process is fair to defendants. Florida is a full-discovery state, meaning that all the evidence law enforcement and prosecutors gather is available for the defense’s scrutiny.
 
And we go through elaborate procedures before and after verdicts are rendered, getting recommendations from a wide range of witnesses and experts. Since Florida is a full- discovery state, there are no secrets from the defense when we take defendants to trial, and there’s full disclosure of all evidence for the defense’s review. 
 
None of the defendant’s prior record or any aggravating circumstances that may be known get revealed to the jury until after they’ve rendered a verdict in the guilt phase.
 
We go to extraordinary lengths to assure that those are not factors in their deliberations. Jurors just don’t hear about any of that until after the verdict. And jury selection is an entirely fair process, too, and we have very good people defending their clients in capital cases. I think the system is working well the way it is.
 

Howard  Simon's picture
Howard Simon
Executive Director, ACLU of Florida

Former members of Florida’s Supreme Court, some even former prosecutors who had sought death sentences, have told the state that our death penalty system is broken and needs fixing.  The American Bar Association sent a similar message. 
 
What do we need -- other than leadership -- to take this message seriously? The facts document a broken system and how far out of step the state is from the rest of the country.
 
Though there is some dispute about whether the number is 23 or 26, in either case Florida leads the nation in exonerations from Death Row due to evidence of wrongful conviction.
 
Whether or not policymakers acknowledge it, innocent people are sentenced to death. Since 1973, nationwide, over 138 people have been released from death row because of innocence – that’s one person exonerated for every ten executed.
 
You have to wonder whether policymakers, and the general public, care that we maintain a system of state executions that has the capacity to make horrible mistakes and execute innocent people.
 
Florida is only one of two states in which a jury can send a person to death by majority vote, though a unanimous vote is required to find the person guilty.  Of the 34 states that currently retain the death penalty, only Florida and Alabama still do not require a unanimous jury.  In Florida a death recommendation can come from just seven jurors (Alabama requires at least ten).  Why should it be easier to impose a death sentence than to find a person guilty?
 
People seem to be convinced that it is less expensive to execute a convicted murderer than to impose a life sentence– but in fact, the opposite is true. It is an enormous waste of taxpayers’ money to maintain a death penalty system that provides no public safety benefit. 
 
One reason we need to replace the death penalty system is that it is applied so unfairly, so unjustly, so arbitrarily. Decisions about who lives and who dies are largely dependent on how much money they have, the skill of their attorneys, the race of the victim and where the crime took place. People of color are far more likely to be executed than white people, especially if the victim is white.
 
It is long past time for Florida to replace its death penalty system with a more effective alternative of permanent imprisonment, and we will continue to work for a future in which we have done so.

Randall Woodard's picture
Randall Woodard
Associate Professor of Theology, Saint Leo University

Discussing the death penalty can be difficult because of the strong emotions this challenging topic raises in good people. I can’t imagine what it would be like to experience a murder or abuse in my family. For years I struggled with the use of capital punishment, initially holding that scripture and Catholic tradition were in favor of it. Eventually, it was the writing of John Paul II and his focus on human dignity that helped change my mind and heart.

Many Catholics in the U.S. still disagree on the moral legitimacy of the death penalty. It is likely that one will be more influenced by his or her political affiliation than one’s religious denomination.

Current Catholic teaching (as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church) is clear. Governments have a right and duty to protect citizens from unjust aggressors and promote the common good. To this end, a nation may use the death penalty (section 2266).

However, the Catechism explains that if bloodless means are possible to protect society then those should be used as they “are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” (section 2267).

Thus, in the US, Catholics are left with the question of applying these norms. Although we have the right to use force, the question remains- are we capable of using bloodless means to protect ourselves and can we do so while treating violent criminals with human dignity? The answer coming from the US bishops as well as recent Popes- is a clear yes. We have the capacity to protect ourselves from violent criminals without recourse to capital punishment.

The late John Paul II worked throughout his entire pontificate to proclaim a teaching that is foundational in Catholic social teaching, namely, human dignity. This principle states that all humans are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) do not have to earn, and cannot lose this dignity. As difficult as this principle is to embrace when faced with a ruthless killer or child molester, it calls us to see the image of God in all others, regardless of their horrific choices. What it means is we ought to avoid doing anything to people that is beneath their human dignity. 

So, what does this mean to us in Florida? From a Catholic perspective, we have the bloodless means to protect ourselves from people who have committed horrific crimes. As difficult as this may be, we are called to serve the dignity of all, even our brothers and sisters on death row. John Paul II remarked “A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.” (Papal Mass, St. Louis, Missouri 1/27/99).

John Roberts's picture
John Roberts
Chief Justice, Supreme Court of the United States

Excerpts from Chief Justice John Roberts 2008 decision in the Baze v. Rees:

Simply because an execution method may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not establish the sort of “objectively intolerable risk of harm” (quoting the opinion of the Court from Farmer v. Brennan, 1994) that qualifies as cruel and unusual. . . .

Kentucky has adopted a method of execution believed to be the most humane available, one is shares with 35 other states. . . Kentucky’s decision to adhere to its protocol cannot be viewed as probative of the wanton infliction of pain under the Eighth Amendment. . . .

Throughout our history, whenever a method of execution has been challenged in this Court as cruel and unusual, the Court has rejected the challenge. Our society has nonetheless steadily moved to more humane methods of carrying out capital punishment.

 

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FloridaVoices User Comments

Gordon Pleasants's picture

I truly believe the United States has the best criminal justice system in the world. However, we have witnessed time and again it is far from perfect. Over the past decades we have seen hundreds of convicted persons, including those on death row, being freed based on newly discovered evidence or by misconduct by the police and/or prosecution. Part of the reason for this is the “win at all costs” attitude our judicial system has become. It isn’t always about the truth, as it is supposed to be, but in the politics (as in the Zimmerman case), the reputation and glory of getting a conviction or acquittal, and many times the honest quest to represent the victim and convict the person everyone “knows” is guilty of the crime he or she is accused of committing.

Don’t get me wrong concerning a person paying for their crimes. I believe in the need for incapacitation of violent offenders. I also have no problem with a violent person who meets his fate. This happens regularly on the street when a person pulls a gun on an officer and is shot and killed. However, this is a split second life and death situation

With the death penalty, we are imposing a sentence based on human, and imperfect, decisions based on a multitude of factors. Anyone who has watched the movie 12 Angry Men knows this. How can we as a state continue to impose the ultimate, and irreversible, sanction of death based on an imperfect system? We can’t free a person discovered to be innocent after he has been executed. Life in prison, without parole, would cost the state less money than imposing death and can be reversed if the person is later found to be innocent. The fact that just one wrongly convicted innocent person could be put to death is enough to consider the death penalty morally wrong.

Gordon "Scott" Pleasants
Retired Police Lieutenant and current Criminal Justice Professor