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Death penalty moratorium has victory

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Perspective Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 13, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- If Gov. Jeb Bush remains unconvinced that Florida's death penalty needs fixing, he's part of a dwindling minority. The Tallahassee City Commission, which meets within sight of his office, gave voice to the growing majority last week when it called for a moratorium on executions in Florida.

The vote was 3-1. Mayor Scott Maddox, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, cast the dissent but didn't make a big deal of it. The absent commissioner probably would have made it 3-2, which corresponds to the ratio by which polls say the Florida public favors a moratorium.

That's not the same as opposing the death penalty itself. Most of the public still supports it. But with 23 people now having been set free from Florida's death row because they were provably or probably innocent, it's becoming hard for anyone but a fanatic to disbelieve that something is seriously wrong.

"The figures and research done so meticulously by the American Bar and others show that the system is flawed," says Commissioner Charles Billings. "The only decent thing to do, really, is to stop that until we get it fixed."

Billings, whose day job is as a professor of political science at Florida State University, counts himself as a supporter of capital punishment. What's more, his mother was a murder victim, slain in her Sunday school classroom at Pontiac, Mich., 24 years ago by a woman who was found to be insane. So he is better prepared than most people to understand all sides of the issue.

"As I said at the commission meeting," he said, "I'm not the only one; many of us have been touched by that kind of thing. Even with that understanding of how victims feel, we have to bring justice. . . ."

Can the death penalty be made trustworthy to bring justice?

"That remains to be seen," Billings answered, "because everyone's human. It (an execution) is not something you can reverse. The death penalty is either something that has to work correctly and bring justice or you can't do it."

Tallahassee marks the first Florida victory for the moratorium movement, which has been endorsed by 60 local governments elsewhere, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. It was a fitting home-town tribute to Martha Barnett, past president of the American Bar Association, who committed the organization to the moratorium cause. Tallahassee was also the first Florida city solicited. There will be others.

The Bigfoot politicians at the Capitol may try to ignore the little local politicians across the street on the premise that cities have no responsibility for the death penalty, which is essentially the argument that Maddox made. But city commissioners are elected by the same voters as legislators and governors. If city commissioners can have a rational discussion of the death penalty without being struck by lightning, why can't legislators? If city commissioners can trust their constituents to be reasonable, why can't legislators?

There must be some unwritten rule that political courage is inversely proportionate to the power of the office.

The Legislature did some pretty harsh things last month to cope with the deficit. Some of them might even have the effect of killing innocent people who depend on medical assistance that's being cut off. But for the sake of trying to kill a few who are presumed guilty, the state goes on wasting at least $51-million a year.

That's how much more the death penalty costs, the Palm Beach Post estimated, beyond what the state would spend to incarcerate all first-degree murderers for life without parole. There is nothing kind or soft about that alternative; there is nothing kind or soft about a Florida maximum-security prison. Some inmates have actually preferred execution. But it would spare the enormous expense of capital appeals and retrials (which the courts won't cut short regardless of how much some bloodthirsty pols might wish them to) and it would give police and prosecutors more time to spend getting bad people off the street.

Citizens themselves are making the death penalty into Florida's rarest luxury. According to Michael Radelet, a former University of Florida sociologist now at the University of Colorado, Florida sentenced only 14 new defendants to death last year, the lowest number since the death penalty was reactivated in 1973. That compares with an annual average of 22.6 in the previous five years and 39.8 during the most sanguinary period, 1986-1990. The murder rate has declined also, but not as dramatically.

"Somebody is doing something right," says Radelet. What's right is that juries and judges have caught on to the fact that life in prison now means life without parole for a first-degree murderer.

Gov. Bob Martinez vetoed that change, which Gov. Lawton Chiles later signed into law, because Martinez feared it would discourage use of the death penalty. Martinez's prediction turns out to have been right.

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