Michael Putney: Death penalty politics in Florida



I recently met Florida death penalty exonerees 23 and 24. They are, respectively, Herman Lindsey of Pompano Beach and Seth Penalver of Fort Lauderdale. They’re not choir boys, but they’re not murderers, either. And they were on the list to be killed by the state.

The two men, both 40, were on Florida’s death row for years awaiting execution. Then new evidence, a new trial or a higher court overturned their convictions, and they were freed. Now, they want to tell their stories to Gov. Rick Scott and urge him to veto the so-called Timely Justice Act, which would shorten death-penalty appeals and speed up executions. Those things need to happen, but the mislabeled Timely Justice Act is not the way to do it.

“I want to tell him what happened to me and show him that I’d be dead if this act was law when I was in prison,” says Penalver. He was convicted of the gruesome murders of three people in the notorious “Casey’s Nickelodeon” case in Miramar in 1994. Lindsey was accused (years after the crime) of killing an employee at a Broward pawn shop in 1994, but the state Supreme Court unanimously agreed there was no way he could have committed the crime and overturned his conviction. “I never even got a ‘I’m sorry,’ ” says Lindsey, who is not eligible for state compensation for his time on Death Row since he had a previous criminal record.

Since Florida reinstated the death penalty in 1979, the state has executed 75 people. But during the same period, 24 death row prisoners have been exonerated and freed, mainly because of DNA evidence, but also because of other evidence, recanted testimony, confessions, incompetent legal counsel or police or prosecutorial misconduct. That’s 24 human beings who were going to be put to death even though they had not committed the crime of which they were accused. It’s an astonishing number, the highest in the country. And it should give Gov. Scott pause.

I doubt that it will. Scott just signed three death warrants in one day, the most any governor has signed in more than 20 years. Ironically, the inmates whose names are on those death warrants have been on Florida’s death row more than 20 years. According to the House sponsor of the Timely Justice Act, 150 of the inmates on Death Row have been there 20 years, and 10 have been there 35 years. These outrageous numbers speak to a systemic dysfunction in the way Florida handles capital cases. Justice for those on death row in the Sunshine State is neither swift nor equitable.

Some veteran inmates were spared during the hiatus when the U.S. Supreme Court was deciding if the death penalty was constitutional. Others may have been spared by governors who had second thoughts about the deterrent value of the death penalty, or who didn’t want their legacy to be that of the “Death Penalty Governor.” That could be Scott’s legacy if he signs the Timely Justice Act; 13 death row inmates, according to the ACLU, would be immediate candidates for execution.

The Timely Just Act passed the Legislature largely along party lines with Republicans in favor and Democrats against. During the House debate, the bill’s sponsor, Rep Matt Gaetz, said, “Only God can judge, but we sure can set up the meeting.” A bit flippant, wouldn’t you say, for an issue that is literally about life and death? Over in the Senate, Republican Rob Bradley proclaimed, “This is not about guilt or innocence, it’s about timely justice.”

Justice certainly should be timely, but it can’t be rushed. Guilt or innocence must be firmly established before a death sentence is carried out. There’s no “Oops” moment after an execution.

I share the frustration that most people feel when they hear that a convicted murderer has been on death row for 20 years or longer. In such cases, justice delayed is justice denied. It is reasonable to ask, how much due process does a convicted murderer deserve? Enough so that they’ve exhausted all reasonable appeals.

As it happens, 110 Florida Death Row inmates now fall into that category, according to attorney Mark Schlakman at the Center for Advancement of Human Rights at FSU. These inmates are ready to meet their maker and it looks Gov. Scott is prepared to set the dates — especially if he signs the Timely Justice Act.

When the death penalty was reinstated in Florida I was invited to attend the first execution as one of two press witnesses.

I initially agreed, then thought better of it and took myself off the list. I’ve seen many murder victims in more than four decades as a journalist and witnessed one man being stoned to death. I’m not squeamish, but didn’t want to add to my memory bank the death of a man at the hands of the state. I don’t believe that one barbaric act committed by an individual justifies another by the state.

Is there an alternative? Of course. Put the murderer in prison for the rest of his or her life. Without a chance of parole.

If you don’t think that’s punishment enough, then you’ve never been in a high-security prison or on death row. I have. They’re frightening, dehumanizing places that are worse, in my view, than losing your life. And if you think the cost of someone serving a life sentence is too high, think again, because carrying out an execution is much costlier.

Keeping convicted murderers on Florida’s death row for an average of 13 years is much too long. But if it is the price we must pay for justice, then pay we must. The governor needs to veto the Timely Justice Act.

Read more Michael Putney stories from the Miami Herald



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