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Hillsborough’s top seniors urge common sense on death penalty

Read the three winning entries in the 2023 R.F. “Red” Pittman Tribune Scholars essay contest.
 
The 2023 winners of the Red “R.F.” Pittman essay contest, left to right: Kaylee Greelish, Sickles High School; Alexsandra Wilkes, Gaither High School; and Kaylee Matteis, Newsome High School.
The 2023 winners of the Red “R.F.” Pittman essay contest, left to right: Kaylee Greelish, Sickles High School; Alexsandra Wilkes, Gaither High School; and Kaylee Matteis, Newsome High School. [ Special to the Times ]
Published May 21, 2023

It’s a controversial question that has dominated political debates about criminal justice for the past year.

Florida requires a jury to be unanimous in its decision to sentence a prisoner to death. Should the state roll back its stance on unanimity and allow for an 8-4 majority to rule? Should the state continue to utilize the death penalty or dismiss it entirely?

A total of 96 Hillsborough County high school students responded as part of the annual R.F. “Red” Pittman Tribune Scholars program, named for a publisher of the former Tampa Tribune newspaper and now sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times.

Only those at the top 3% of their class were asked to write a 250-word essay in response to the question.

The judges this year were Stephen Lambert, English professor and quality enhancement plan director at Hillsborough Community College; Yuly Restrepo, assistant professor of English at the University of Tampa; and Jim Verhulst, deputy editor of editorials for the Tampa Bay Times.

Each winner received a scholarship for $1,300. They winners were Kaylee Greelish, Sickles High School; Kaylee Matteis, Newsome High School; and Alexsandra Wilkes, Gaither High School.

Kaylee Greelish
Kaylee Greelish [ Special to the Times ]

Kaylee Greelish, Sickles High School

Kaylee plans to attend the University of Central Florida’s Burnett Honors College to study engineering.

Florida should not roll back its stance on unanimity regarding the death sentence. The first state to reinstate the death penalty after Furman v. Georgia in 1972, Florida has since pushed its limits, violating multiple constitutional amendments and even executing minors. Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled Florida’s death penalty practices to be unconstitutional numerous times. Prior to 2017, only a majority vote was required to impose the death sentence; Case histories show that if no unanimous vote is required, jurors don’t take time to thoroughly deliberate on a sentence. Additionally, Florida leads the country in death row exonerations. By abolishing the unanimity requirement, more innocent people may be convicted. All 12 jurors should have to agree to impose the death sentence to protect potentially innocent people and ensure that more rulings are constitutional.

Death penalty cases are far more complex, lengthy and expensive than other legal cases. In Florida, some of the more complicated trials can cost taxpayers $41 million, approximately 80 times more than a life sentence without parole. This takes funds from the organizations working to solve underlying causes of violence, creating a downward spiral in society. Additionally, research indicates that there is no evidence of a deterrent effect linked to death penalty law. In an analysis of 2020 homicide data, the Death Penalty Information Center found states with the death penalty had significantly higher murder rates than states without it. The death penalty should be eliminated altogether since it is expensive and may not be an effective deterrent.

Kaylee Matteis
Kaylee Matteis [ Special to the Times ]

Kaylee Matteis, Newsome High School

Kaylee plans to attend Duke University to study economics.

Carlos DeLuna. Ruben Cantu. Troy Davis. These names are among the many whom Lady Justice has horribly failed. At the cost of decades on death row and the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives, research today suggests that these men may have never committed the crimes they were executed for. Even if their names were cleared, to quote the novelist Mary E. Pearson, “Truth that came too late was as useful as a meal to a dead man.”

Since 1973, the Death Penalty Information Center reports that 190 death row prisoners have been exonerated of their crimes. Florida has the highest number of any state, with a whopping 30 wrongfully accused persons being found innocent after serving on the condemned row. Further horrifying to consider is the multitude of individuals whose true stories followed them to the grave, remaining undiscovered for eternity. And for a country that prides itself for “establishing justice” in the preamble of its Constitution, the United States has far to go before it can truthfully practice what it preaches.

This staggering statistic itself proves that Florida ought to reevaluate its procedures regarding the death penalty. Undoubtedly, the notion of rolling back current restrictions for this punishment in the Sunshine State laughs in the faces of those wrongfully accused and put to death. Until the Florida justice system can most accurately distinguish the innocent from the guilty, it might be best to repay the death penalty with what it has erroneously given to others: the capital sentence.

Alexsandra Wilkes
Alexsandra Wilkes [ Special to the Times ]

Alexsandra Wilkes, Gaither High School

Alexsandra plans to attend the University of South Florida and major in Health Sciences with the goal of becoming a pediatrician.

Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer, once said, “The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is: ‘Do we deserve to kill?’”. The state shouldn’t abandon its commitment to unanimous decision-making and permit an 8-4 majority to take control. The legal system’s objective is to ensure justice is done, and ensuring unanimity in instances involving the death penalty is crucial in achieving that goal. This is not a “popcorn or slurpee” type decision; we are talking about life and death here. Although I am not old enough to be a juror just yet, I can’t imagine the pressure of being on a jury deciding one’s fate. As stated by the American Psychological Association, the jurors felt more certain that their verdict choice was the right one, and they are convinced that their decision did justice. These decisions aren’t easy to make. If the decision wasn’t unanimous, would they question if there was something more they could do to convince others to spare someone’s life? Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars”. Without further bloodshed, we may remember the victims.