In January the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated death sentences imposed under a Florida law quashed as unconstitutional because it required judges and not juries to determine aggravating circumstances and thus whether the sentence would be execution. The 8-1 ruling found the law violated the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial and handed the judge too much authority.
Then early this year the Legislature rewrote the state’s capital punishment law to require that a supermajority of jurors — 10 of 12 — recommend a death sentence instead of a simple majority. The state Supreme Court struck that down in November, ruling the decision must be unanimous, and justices overturned the death sentence in a case where the jury split 9-3 in advocating death.
Last week Florida’s Supreme Court followed up on that November decision, determining more than 200 death row inmates are eligible for lower sentences or rehearings because of the January U.S. Supreme Court ruling. But more than 150 other prisoners will not qualify because those cases were finalized before a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court set precedent. That includes Manatee County’s three death row inmates.
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In that Florida ruling, a dissenting justice attacked the 2002 date as an arbitrary boundary that treats inmates sentenced just days apart differently without justification. His solution: Vacate those felons’ death sentences and impose life in prison instead, still a just punishment for heinous crimes.
This confusing turn of events renews brings the death penalty issue back into the spotlight. Only 20 executions occurred this year nationwide, the lowest number in 25 years and way down from the peak of 98 in 1999. According to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, only 30 new death sentences have been imposed this year, the fewest in modern history and 40 percent less than last year. Compare that to the 315 such sentences in 1996, the center’s new report states.
While public support for the sentence has fallen nationally, public opinion polls are divided with a Pew Research Center survey this year showing waning support, below 50 percent, the smallest mark since the 1970s. But an October Gallup poll put support staying at 60 percent. Both surveys came up far short of the 80 percent public backing in the 1990s.
The number of states that have abolished capital punishment now stands at 19 and six others have not executed anyone for a decade or more.
The pros and cons of capital punishment have changed little over the years. One has — exponentially each year. The cost.
Prosecutors assign more staff to death penalty cases because of the complicated nature of the proceedings. Defense attorneys charge by the hour, and the Judicial Conference of the United States has reported the average capital case consumes more than 3,500 hours. Then there are expert witnesses such as psychiatrists, pathologists, investigators and others who get paid. Jury selection can drag on for a month or more, all paid hours for judges, attorneys and court staff.
With a conviction, death row inmates are almost always segregated from a prison’s general population at an annual cost often twice as much as other felons. Appeals drag on for years, an average of 14 in Florida, raising all costs. A 2012 investigation by Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers found the state spends as much as $1 million per death row inmate on incarceration and appeals alone with trial costs adding much more.
Other compelling con arguments have been around forever: executions violate the “cruel and unusual” clause in the Bill of Rights and the practive is immoral; life in prison is worse and a more powerful deterrent; families suffer from the emotionally debilitating appeals proceedings; the revenge motive solves nothing; and innocent individuals could be executed (exonerations from death row in Florida total 23, the most of any state).
Advocates of capital punishment cite closure for the victims’ suffering families; the penalty acts as a deterrent for murder; the central principle of justice, the punishment should fit the crime, is served; DNA testing and state-of-the-art crime scene science can eliminate nearly all doubt about guilt; and the death penalty gives prosecutors leverage in the plea-bargain process.
Florida’s judicial system and Legislature still have work to do on this issue. Meanwhile, where do you stand? We invite your opinions in letters to the editor.
Should Florida abolish the dealth penalty? Why or why not?