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Column: The death penalty needs to die in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties

On Monday, I joined 74 other faith leaders from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in calling on our district attorneys' offices to suspend their use of the death penalty. We come from diverse faith traditions, yet we share the deep conviction that the death penalty is harming our community.

A new report by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School shows that Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are outliers in their high use of the death penalty. Death sentences and executions are increasingly rare in the rest of Florida and the country, but our counties are hanging onto this broken and unfair practice — at great human and fiscal cost.

Out of more than 3,000 counties nationwide, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are among only 16 with five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015, mostly for people from vulnerable populations. Our use of the death penalty says certain lives are disposable, especially if they lack resources for robust defense. Too often, the death penalty is used against those with mental impairments.

Looking at death sentences from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court since 2006, the Harvard report finds that a majority of these cases involve defendants with intellectual disability, severe mental illness or brain damage. This track record is shameful and inhumane. We need to stop executing the mentally ill and the poor.

Our high use of the death penalty also results in wrongful convictions. In Hillsborough County, three individuals sentenced to death were later exonerated. Take for example the case of Rudolph Horton, who spent 16 years on death row for a murder he did not commit. Prosecutors in his case withheld exculpatory evidence. DNA testing showed a hair recovered from the crime scene — which officials claimed belonged to Horton — was not in fact from him. Clearly, the current criminal justice system is far from infallible. In such a system that makes the success of conviction more important than protection of the innocent, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have no business seeking the death penalty.

Florida currently lacks a functioning death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state's death penalty in January, and various Florida courts have deemed the new statute passed by the Florida Legislature earlier this year to be unconstitutional. All death penalty cases now face years, often decades, of litigation and legal uncertainty. This process can be incredibly painful to the families of murder victims. Our broken death penalty certainly is not serving them. It comes with real human costs without providing significant benefit to society, and its high cost of litigation stresses court budgets to the point of compromising justice.

So why do Hillsborough and Pinellas counties continue using the death penalty despite all the evidence that it fails to benefit our communities? True leadership in our counties is needed to join the dramatic shift away from the death penalty across the country. In the last decade, eight states have ended the death penalty while four others have put a moratorium on executions. The nation is at a record low in death sentences and executions. The trends all lead to the same conclusion: The death penalty is dying in America.

The day has come to end the death penalty here too. That is why the number of faith leaders calling to end this failed policy is growing. We are working together to end the death penalty because our spiritual values recognize the value of every person, and a broken justice system implicates us all in the unwarranted killing of the innocent and the vulnerable.

The Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer is the executive director of the Florida Council of Churches and pastor of the St. Paul and Faith Lutheran Churches in Tampa.

Column: The death penalty needs to die in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties 10/18/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 18, 2016 5:26pm]
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