Faith leaders urge State Attorney Bernie McCabe to stop death sentences

Pinellas Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Pinellas Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published March 29, 2018

LARGO — Dozens of faith leaders from Pinellas and Pasco counties are urging State Attorney Bernie McCabe to stop seeking the death penalty in murder cases.

In a letter signed by 46 pastors and priests, they ask McCabe to consider their concerns.

"We all believe there must be accountability and consequences for those who commit crimes. A true justice system can achieve these ends without denying dignity and respect to human lives," the letter reads. "With the death penalty, this dignity is denied and we commit the grave error of closing off hope to the possibility for redemption."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: 75 Tampa Bay area religious leaders call for end to death penalty in wake of Harvard report.

Among the signers is Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, as well as other members of the diocese and ministries across Tampa Bay.

The church leaders plan on gathering outside the Pinellas County Justice Center on Friday morning, though McCabe's office and the rest of the courthouse complex is closed. For Rev. Russell Meyer, the director of the Florida Council of Churches, it's an appropriate day to discuss capital punishment.

"Good Friday is one of the most important days on the Christian calendar. It's a day when we remember the execution of Jesus, perhaps lawfully done, but clearly an innocent man," Meyer said. "What we're doing is choosing a moment that's especially meaningful for us in order to lift up our combined voices."

Reached by phone Friday, McCabe said he appreciates their position.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Harvard report dubs Hillsborough, Pinellas as 'outliers' on death penalty.

"But I'm not the one they should talk to," he said. "They need to talk to the Legislature. The Legislature sets policy. I carry out the policy and I am not going to unilaterally say what punishment should be for crimes."

This is the second demonstration against the death penalty led by faith leaders in Tampa Bay. In 2016, nine pastors and priests carried a similar letter to a news conference in front of Joe Chillura Courthouse Square in downtown Tampa, urging then Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober to suspend the use of the death penalty.

The letter addressed to McCabe also cites a recent poll funded by the nonprofit Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. It found that 68 percent of Pinellas County voters who were polled preferred life in prison in murder cases as opposed to the death penalty.

Forty-six percent of respondents also said they would strongly support "a decision by the local state attorney to reduce or eliminate the use of the death penalty."

The group also cites statistics from a 2016 report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project. According to that study, Pinellas and Hillsborough are among 16 counties in the nation that sentenced five or more people to death between 2010 and 2015.

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"The death penalty is contrary to the teachings of Jesus," said Rev. Bruce Wright of Refuge Ministries Tampa Bay International. "We're told that that kind of retribution and revenge is not something we should engage in as Christians."

When asked how many cases his office is currently seeking the death penalty in, McCabe said he didn't know.

"I consider the cases on an individual basis, and I don't know that it's terribly helpful to keep a tally," he said. "I don't think you want that to influence the individual decisions you're trying to make."

Getting a jury to consider death has become increasingly difficult, he added. After Florida lawmakers revised the state's laws last year to require unanimous juries in capital cases, only about four have gone to trial in the Pinellas-Pasco circuit.

The defendants in those cases all received life sentences after jurors couldn't reach a unanimous decision for death.

McCabe said he has also reconsidered seeking death in several older cases that are back in his circuit for resentencing under the new laws.

"The bar is much higher," McCabe said. "You have to make a reasonable judgment as to whether you think you got a reasonable prospect of getting 12 people to agree."

Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel.