Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Opinion

Column: Vengeance isn't justice

The concept of justice was tossed around like a Frisbee during this past session of the Florida Legislature. It's a cherished value. It deserves more respect.

Justice is contained in both hands of the blindfolded Roman goddess Justitia. The scales she holds symbolize distributive justice, the moral evaluation of how fairly the benefits and burdens of life are allocated. The sword carried in the goddess' other hand represents retributive justice, which requires that those so deserving receive punishment that "fits the crime" — meaning the severity of the punishment shall be proportional (not equivalent) to the crime.

"Justice" was thrown around in debates over the Timely Justice Act, which is an attempt by the Legislature to impermissibly dictate to the courts and the current and all future governors how judicial and executive powers shall be exercised with regard to the death penalty.

Sponsors of the legislation want to speed the pace of executions — though it is no secret that Florida's death penalty system is broken. We make more mistakes than any other state. More people are wrongfully convicted, exonerated and released from Florida's death row than any other state — of those that still engage in executions.

Wrongful convictions arise from exonerating evidence, including DNA evidence, discovered years later or evidence withheld by prosecutors that establishes innocence for a crime for which someone was almost executed.

Nevertheless, defending the Timely Justice Act, Sen. Rob Bradley of Orange Park exclaimed: "When someone sits on death row for 10, 20, 30 years, it really makes a mockery of our justice system. It's not fair to the victims' families not only to be traumatized by the loss of a loved one, but then to have to sit and suffer while justice is not realized year after year after year."

This is a distressingly common characterization of justice heard at our state Capitol — a person may be convicted of a crime and locked away, but there is no justice.

Virtually the entire world has ended state executions, either formally abolishing the death penalty or ceasing executions — except Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and, of course, parts of the United States (most notably Texas and Florida). Are Florida politicians really claiming that if a person has been convicted of homicide and sentenced to life imprisonment there is no justice unless that person is put to death by the state?

Are the politicians really claiming that the criminal justice systems of, say, Canada, Brazil or Michigan are devoid of justice?

Michigan, the first jurisdiction in the English-speaking world to abolish the death penalty, ended executions in response to the 1828 hanging of Patrick Fitzpatrick for the rape and murder of an innkeeper's daughter. Fitzpatrick was put to death with great ceremony — families came for a picnic and to watch the hanging. A few years later, Fitzpatrick's former roommate made a deathbed confession.

The revulsion over the execution of an innocent man led the territory to abolish the death penalty, and it has been banned ever since. Those convicted of first-degree murder in Michigan are sentenced to life without parole.

Another spin on the concept of justice, used by former Gov. Jeb Bush to justify executions, is that the death penalty is necessary to satisfy the victims of crime (or their families) and to help bring "closure."

Shame on Florida politicians for leading grieving families to believe that vengeance brings solace and closure following the tragic loss of a loved one.

Godfather Don Corleone is not the model for justice. "You damaged my house; you hurt my family. I deserve satisfaction; so it's only right that I hurt yours" is not a principle around which to organize a civilized society.

We would not give legal recognition to a victim's desire to be satisfied by resorting to the dictates of the ancient Hammurabi Code by which the state takes "an eye for an eye" or chops off a perpetrator's right hand.

And what of families of murder victims who don't want the state to take another life? I doubt that the Legislature would be willing to adjust the penalty to "satisfy" those who want some other punishment because they know that executing the defendant will not bring back their loved one and only cheapens life.

Legislators can twist themselves into a pretzel attempting to justify anything. But they shouldn't be allowed to dress up extracting vengeance and pretend that they are seeking justice.

Howard Simon is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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