Florida

As death penalty debate reignites, Florida carves its own path

FILE - This Oct. 9, 2014, file photo shows the gurney in the the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. On Monday, June 29, 2015, The Supreme Court voted 5-4 in a case from Oklahoma saying that the sedative midazolam can be used in executions without violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Florida wants to start up executions again after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday cleared a drug used in the state’s lethal injection cocktail.
FILE - This Oct. 9, 2014, file photo shows the gurney in the the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. On Monday, June 29, 2015, The Supreme Court voted 5-4 in a case from Oklahoma saying that the sedative midazolam can be used in executions without violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Florida wants to start up executions again after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday cleared a drug used in the state’s lethal injection cocktail. AP

For nearly six months, the death chamber at Florida State Prison has remained empty.

No prisoners have been executed, not since Jan. 15, when Johnny Kormondy — convicted of fatally shooting a Pensacola banker in 1993 and raping his wife — was given a series of three injections and breathed his last breaths.

A Supreme Court ruling last week means that unusual respite for convicted killers should end, with Florida resuming what has been an accelerated pace of executions ordered by Gov. Rick Scott.

Just don’t expect the rest of the country to follow its lead.

With the exception of a few states like Florida, use of the death penalty has waned amid legal challenges in state and federal courts and shifting public opinion. Last week, two Supreme Court justices suggested the death penalty itself is not constitutional, writing that it’s time for a robust debate and for the high court to act.

Other questions have fanned the debate over the death penalty itself. The Nebraska Legislature overrode their governor’s veto to ban capital punishment in May, and the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take up a case about the procedures that put Floridians on death row.

Amid those legislative and legal attempts to curtail capital punishment, both the number of people on death row and the total number of executions have been trending downward nationwide since 2000.

And then there’s Florida.

Under Scott, Florida has been executing death row prisoners at a faster rate than under any governor since the death penalty came back into use in 1977.

Since Scott entered office in 2011, Florida has executed 21 people. Last year, the state’s eight executions put it third nationwide, behind just Texas and Missouri, which executed 10 apiece. Apart from those three states, there were only seven other executions in the country last year.

Florida is one of just a few states directly affected by last Monday’s Supreme Court decision.

In the ruling, the high court said that midazolam, one of the three drugs used for lethal injections in Florida, is constitutional. Critics had tried to ban it, arguing it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Within hours, Attorney General Pam Bondi asked for permission to continue executions which were halted by the Florida Supreme Court in February while the use of midazolam was under review.

Bondi isn’t the only Florida leader pushing to continue executions here.

“If you don’t have the death penalty, it’s a free murder,” says Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, a staunch supporter of the capital punishment. “I’m for no free murders, and that’s why I think Florida is right for bucking the national trend of watering down the death penalty.”

Gaetz has been at the forefront of pushing for capital punishment reforms aimed at shortening the amount of time between sentencing and execution.

He sponsored a 2013 law that forces the governor to move quickly after death row prisoners have exhausted all of their appeals in the courts. That law, the Timely Justice Act, is one of the reasons executions have ticked up the last two years, he said.

The goal, said Gaetz, is to bring the average death row wait down to eight years from the current wait time exceeding 20 years. Despite Scott’s fervor in signing death warrants, no one convicted after 2000 has been executed.

But laws like the Timely Justice Act worry opponents of the death penalty, who point to those exonerated from death row.

For every four people sentenced to death in Florida since the 1970s, one person has been released, according to Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

“We call for a halt on Florida executions,” Elliott said in a statement. “No one knows how many more innocent people remain on Death Row or, God forbid, have already been executed.”

Still, the appetite for reform remains focused on moving prisoners through the appeals process and into the Starke death chamber as swiftly as possible.

The last couple years, members of the Legislature have proposed stricter requirements for judges to issue death sentences.

Florida is unusual in that it requires only a seven-to-five vote from a jury to recommend a death sentence. The judge makes a final determination based on the jury’s suggestion, but majority required is unusually narrow.

A bill this year to require unanimous consent of juries failed to gain traction after its first hearing in the Senate. And Gaetz says he was researching a similar proposal in 2013 when he chaired the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

“Before the sun set on the day I sent some questions to the attorney general’s office, Pam Bondi was in my office wagging her finger in my face,” Gaetz said. “It’s the only time in my six sessions that Pam Bondi has ever visited my office.”

Her concern was that changing the sentencing rules will open new opportunities for the 395 people on death row to appeal their cases, overloading the courts. Yet, these same sentencing rules could be thrown out even without the support of the Legislature.

Most states require a unanimous vote or at least a 10-to-2 majority.

The next major death penalty case to be taken up in the U.S. Supreme Court will seek to answer this very question: Is a seven-to-five majority on a Florida jury sufficient to recommend the state put someone to death?

This series of smaller questions — first lethal injection drugs and next sentencing processes — could blossom into a broader challenge to any use of the death penalty.

Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in fact, called for the Court to take up a case on the constitutionality of the death penalty itself in writing a striking dissent to the lethal injection case.

As most states have banned the death penalty altogether or their governors have abandoned its use, Elliott says he’s seeing the tide turn politically against the death penalty.

“We are seeing more and more conservatives, libertarians and progressives in agreement to end capital punishment programs,” he said.

That doesn’t sway Gaetz, who says the death penalty remains essential, especially in Florida.

“I think that Florida attracts more than its fair share of depraved killers,” he said. “We have had a large quantity of high-profile murders in our state with very heinous motives … The memories of these events are seared in the minds of many Floridians.”

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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