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Florida's death penalty has a long, tortured history

In Florida, even the death penalty is very ... Florida.

Renegade. Immune to national trends. Often tested, never defeated.

Until this week. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's unique capital sentencing system, saying the state gives too much power to judges, and not enough to juries, to sentence someone to death. The ruling threw Florida's nearly 400 death row cases into disarray.

But upheaval is common to capital punishment in Florida, which is compelled again to fall into constitutional line.

In 2005, our own state Supreme Court urged the legislature to reform Florida's system of capital punishment, which was followed a year later by a warning from the American Bar Association that the state law was likely unconstitutional.

Still, executions continued.

In fact, the Sunshine State is always near the top for the number of people put to death each year. We also lead the nation in exonerations.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 26 inmates have been freed from Florida's death row since 1973, either because their charges were dismissed, they were pardoned or they were cleared of guilt.

One prisoner walked off death row in 2015. Derral Wayne Hodgkins was cleared in June after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state's case was "purely circumstantial" and skewered prosecutors for mischaracterizing crucial DNA evidence. Hodgkins, now 56, had been convicted of the first-degree murder of Teresa Lodge, a 46-year-old woman who served breakfast daily at Frank's Cafe in Land O'Lakes. Hodgkins, who had earlier been convicted of a violent sexual assault on a minor, was freed in October with fewer restrictions on him than if he'd never been convicted of murder.

Since 2008, Florida has carried out executions by lethal injection. For seven decades before that though, inmates died in the electric chair. Questions about the performance of Old Sparky clogged the courts with appeals, and public opinion polls showed voters preferred lethal injection. Even after several inmates in the 1990s caught fire and bled during their executions, Florida lawmakers stood firm.

It took a U.S. Supreme Court review, which threatened to declare the electric chair "cruel and unusual punishment" and therefore unconstitutional, to prompt the state to switch to lethal injection (though the new law left inmates the option of choosing electrocution).

"What I hope is that we become like Texas," then-Gov. Jeb Bush's top policy adviser said. "Bring in the witnesses, put (the condemned) on a gurney and let's rock 'n' roll."

The new method proceeded until the end of 2006, when convicted killer Angel Diaz winced, shuddered and remained alive for 34 minutes until the three-drug cocktail finally stopped his heart. Bush halted all executions and convened a panel to study procedures. Several changes were made, but executions were delayed again when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a challenge to lethal injection protocols in Kentucky.

Scrutiny of lethal injection — here and around the country — has amped up again in the last couple years because of several botched executions. That, combined with a shortage of the drug used in the procedure, has brought the debate full circle. Several states once again have begun considering reviving use of the electric chair.

And yet, use of the ultimate punishment is on the decline, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Last year, there were 28 executions in 6 states, the fewest since 1991. Two were in Florida.

That belies the mood in Tallahassee. In 2014, legislators passed the Timely Justice Act, intended to speed up executions. And under Gov. Rick Scott, Florida has been executing death row prisoners at a faster rate than under any governor since the death penalty came back into use in 1977.

Of course, all of that is in flux now after the Supreme Court ruling.

Florida's death penalty has a long, tortured history 01/13/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 13, 2016 2:12pm]
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