There are 340 people on Florida’s death row. Without a thorough investigation into the state’s criminal justice system and a full review of every capital conviction, the next execution could be of an innocent person. Many state leaders seem OK with that.
Those leaders, like Gov. Ron DeSantis, should binge watch some television. “When They See Us,” a four-part series on Netflix dramatizing the infamous case of the Central Park Five — five young black and Latino boys falsely accused and wrongfully convicted of the brutal rape of a New York jogger in 1989 — vividly demonstrates how badly flawed the justice system in America can be.
It took more than a decade for the boys’ unjust convictions to be overturned, but the damage to their lives and reputations can never be repaired. It could have been worse, though. The oldest boy was tried as an adult. He could have received the death penalty — and he could have been executed before he was exonerated.
One of the most compelling arguments against the death penalty is that an execution cannot be undone if it turns out an inmate was wrongly convicted. That potential should be especially concerning in Florida, where more death-row inmates have been exonerated than in any other state.
In March, Clifford Williams Jr. became the 29th person exonerated from Florida’s death row since the 1970s. Prosecutors now say he didn’t commit the crime he was convicted of — after he spent 42 years in prison.
Florida has, almost certainly, executed innocent men. Leo Jones might have been one of them. He was executed in 1998 for the murder of a police officer even though one of the main witnesses against him had recanted and there were allegations that his confession came only after a brutal beating by the police officers who interrogated him.
Given that there appears to be no political will to end the death penalty in Florida — one of only about five states that still regularly executes prisoners — restoring confidence in the integrity of the system that puts people on death row is paramount. Gov. DeSantis, a death penalty supporter who recently signed a bill making it harder for ex-felons to vote, should order a review of death-row exonerations and other wrongful convictions.
But instead of doing that, he has appointed three conservative justices to the Florida Supreme Court who might lead the court in reversing a decision about retroactively resentencing death row inmates. The issue arises from a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that allowing judges — not juries — to decide if the facts warranted a death sentence violated the accused men’s right to trial by jury. The state therefore began reviewing death sentences back to 2002, but that state Supreme Court justices seem poised to stop that.
When the state executes a convict, it is acting on behalf of every resident of Florida, and if the state is wrong, it stains all of us. Such an act must rest on a firm, unassailable foundation. There must be absolute confidence that the system is fair, just and devoted to the truth.
There can be no such confidence in the current system.