Monday, February 19, 2018
News Roundup

Romano: Of course, Florida is the nation's slacker in death penalty reforms

We are, as usual, on the wrong side of normal in Florida.

By now, most states have come around to the idea that the death penalty should be a rare occurrence in our justice system. Too many exonerations, too much racial disparity, too many sentences overturned and far too many families of victims waiting for executions that never take place.

So the trend nationwide has been a higher bar and, thus, a lower number of death sentences.

And, yet, Florida remains stubbornly stuck in some spaghetti western version of America.

We represent about 6 percent of the U.S. population, and yet accounted for almost 20 percent of new death sentences in 2015. We've contributed about 15 percent of U.S. executions over the past four years.

All of which explains the flurry of headlines you've seen recently about the death penalty. Alarming numbers are being tossed around, and advocacy groups are speaking out.

Yet, all the noise and activity means little compared to the widely anticipated decision handed down by the Florida Supreme Court on Friday.

Essentially, the justices told state legislators to get their act together.

Florida is one of a handful of states that doesn't require a unanimous jury verdict to impose a death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court slapped Florida back in January, and the Legislature tried to fudge its way past with a compromise law. And now the state Supreme Court has backhanded that idea, too.

"You have a great number of opinions on whether the death penalty is allowable from a theological point of view,'' said the Rev. Russell Meyer, the executive director of the Florida Council of Churches. "But there is unanimity on whether the application of the death penalty has been unjust in Florida.''

Meyer was among a group of clergy members who delivered letters to the state attorney's offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties on Monday, demanding an immediate moratorium on the death penalty.

Their passion was obvious and commendable. Their aim, a little less so.

The clergy seemed to target prosecutors after a critical report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project spotlighted Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Pinellas as some of the most aggressive counties in the nation when it comes to death penalty verdicts.

The numbers from the Harvard project are indisputable, but they seemed to gloss over the point that Florida's death penalty laws are more lax than almost every other state. So, from a statistical point of view, it would make sense that the largest counties in Florida would have the highest number of cases.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe had not yet seen the letter on Monday afternoon, but suggested the clergy might direct their attention to lawmakers, not enforcers.

"Philosophically, I'm not opposed to unanimity as the standard for death penalty sentences,'' McCabe said. "My only concern is what do we do with all of the cases that came before (a new law).''

The reality is most of the nearly 400 residents of Florida's death row would never be executed even if the law was not changed. A Washington Post study last year showed that, during a 40-year span nationally, about only 16 percent of prisoners sentenced to death were ever executed. Most had their convictions or sentences overturned and more than a third spent decades on death row.

The point being, Florida lawmakers shouldn't worry about what happens retroactively to any death penalty sentences that were not the result of a unanimous jury decision. It would be a waste of money and energy to retry cases of inmates who are never going to get out of prison anyway.

Instead, we should be focused on fixing an unconstitutional and ineffective law.

Whether you believe in capital punishment or not, we should at least be able to agree that we need a higher bar for death sentences.

And Florida needs to join the rest of the nation in the 21st century.

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