Florida’s death penalty system is terribly flawed. Lawmakers have known that since at least 2006, when the American Bar Association released an exhaustive report calling the system “fraught with problems,” including racial disparities.
But almost no fixes were made. Meanwhile, evidence of a system gone awry has piled up.
Last year, Florida sentenced 22 people to death, more than any of the other 32 states that impose the penalty. It’s the second year in a row the state has reached that stark benchmark. Yet Florida also leads the nation in the number of Death Row exonerations, with 24 since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Before you try to reconcile those two numbers, add this: a triple murderer from Miami-Dade County is still on Death Row 39 years after his original crimes. Though a federal judge threw out two of his death sentences late last year, Thomas Knight remains on Death Row for a third. Two other Death Row residents have been there even longer.
Added together, it paints an appalling picture of Florida. Record numbers of death sentences. Record numbers of exonerations. Killers who live for almost four decades on Death Row. Surely this is not what anyone wants — on either side of this painful and divisive issue.
Now, a glimmer of hope: Last week, the Florida Bar adopted a position supporting a comprehensive review of Florida’s entire death penalty process by all branches of government. That’s leadership in the right direction. Is anyone in Tallahassee listening?
Perhaps. Proposed legislation filed in Tallahassee could address some facets of Florida’s death penalty process, including a bill sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman, a Melbourne-area Republican, to require a unanimous jury vote to recommend the death penalty to a judge. Currently — in another head-shaking provision of the system — Florida allows juries to find aggravating circumstances and recommend a death sentence by a simple majority vote. All the other death penalty states require some form of unanimity.
Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Tallahassee Democrat, also has filed a bill to abolish the death penalty in Florida, saying there are better and more cost effective ways to prevent crime.
And Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who is chairman of the House subcommittee on criminal justice, has begun advocating to speed up the appeals process, citing statistics including an average Death Row stay of 14 years. Appeals should be limited after they reach the Supreme Court, Rep. Gaetz wrote in a Jan. 22 letter in the News Herald.
The Florida Supreme Court called on the Legislature to review the death penalty statute in 2005 to require jury unanimity on death recommendations. But lawmakers, no doubt fearful of being perceived as soft on crime, have mostly steered clear.
A full review of the system, the position being advocated by the Florida Bar, would serve all interests. The number of exonerations alone should be persuasive enough for any thinking person.
The alarm bells have been clanging for at least seven years. If Florida is going to continue imposing the death penalty, it must be done in a fair and impartial way. So, to Gov. Rick Scott, Florida legislators and judges, it’s time to stop ignoring the evidence of a broken system. Launch the review.