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Column: We ought to know why some live, and some die

Florida believes in government in the sunshine — except when our government officials are exercising their greatest power; the power of life or death. Florida sent seven men to their deaths in 2013, the most in a single year since 1984. With one execution carried out in January and another scheduled for February, the trend is likely to continue this year, even though the number of executions in the rest of the country continues to decline.

On Oct. 4, 2013, the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court listed more than 130 persons who are potentially eligible to have a death warrant signed. But, before a warrant can be signed, the executive clemency process must be concluded.

One of the underlying principles of the American criminal justice system is the belief that justice should be tempered with mercy. The courts determine if a particular punishment is legally just. The executive branch, through the clemency board, has the responsibility to ensure that a legally just sentence is tempered with mercy. The mercy that the clemency board can show in a death penalty case is to commute the sentence to life imprisonment.

When a murder warrants imposition of the death penalty, there can be no excuse for the crime. But there must be an explanation. There must be some reason why the crime was committed. If our elected officials are to honor the fundamental principle of justice tempered with mercy, the clemency board must seek out that explanation and take it into consideration before Gov. Rick Scott signs a death warrant. However, we the people of the state of Florida are prohibited from knowing what the clemency board considers. In fact, we are not even permitted to know if the clemency board considers a case at all.

Under the rules governing executive clemency, the Florida Parole Commission serves as the investigative arm of the clemency board. The commission is directed to conduct a "thorough and detailed investigation into all factors relevant to the issue of clemency," and submit a report to the clemency board. But the rules also provide that all information gathered in the clemency investigation is confidential and unavailable for review by any person except members, and staff, of the clemency board. This confidentiality even extends to the death-sentenced inmate and his attorney.

Even more troubling, the clemency board may not hold a hearing at all.

Since the granting of clemency requires the vote of the governor and two other members of the clemency board, hearings before the full board are rarely held unless the governor supports clemency.

Such secrecy is not the American way; it should not be the way in Florida.

"In Florida, transparency is not up to the whim or grace of public officials. Instead, it is an enforceable right." These are the words of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who also serves as a member of the clemency board. The attorney general's website proclaims: "Government must be accountable to the people. The Florida Constitution, which sets forth our rights as citizens of this great state, provides that the public has the right to know how government officials spend taxpayer dollars and make the decisions affecting their lives. The principle of open government is one that must guide everything done in government for its public."

The principle of open government is ignored when our government officials exercise their greatest power; the power of life or death. Then the process is cloaked in mystery and political intrigue. As citizens of the state of Florida, we should demand that our elected officials be accountable, and honor our right to know how they decide who lives and who dies.

Howard "Rex" Dimmig is public defender for the 10th Judicial Circuit of Florida, encompassing Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: We ought to know why some live, and some die 01/16/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 17, 2014 10:28am]
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