Candidates may keep quiet on death penalty
By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Until the U.S. Supreme Court last week halted the first of three scheduled Florida executions, Jeb Bush was on the verge of earning a new distinction: executing more people in his first term than any governor since capital punishment was reinstated.
But don't expect a lot of boasting from Bush this campaign season. Death penalty politics isn't what it used to be.
Republican Bob Martinez was elected governor in 1986 after his media blitz attacked Democrat Steve Pajcic as a death penalty opponent. In 1994, Jeb Bush used his first campaign ad to criticize Lawton Chiles for not executing more people. "As governor, I'll sign the death warrants that Lawton Chiles wouldn't," Bush promised.
Four years later, Bush rarely mentioned the death penalty when he cruised to victory campaigning as a more moderate candidate. Now, as a new governor's race revs up, the political debate centers at least as much on the fairness of the system as it does on which candidate will execute more murderers.
"People were campaigning on avid pro-death penalty platforms. You don't see that now," said death penalty opponent Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado and a leading authority on capital punishment in Florida. "I'm not sure if that's because of a change in the politicians or a change in public opinion, but there's absolutely no question the politics of the death penalty is changing."
One reason is shifting public priorities. Education has replaced crime as a top concern of Americans, and campaign pitches are following suit. Polls also show growing concerns about the fairness of the death penalty and support for alternative sentences such as life with no chance of parole.
None of the candidates for governor is talking much about the death penalty, but the issue is rising in relevance for Florida.
The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing an Arizona case that could affect dozens of Florida death cases. It concerns the authority of judges to impose death sentences. Florida is one of the few states in which a judge can overturn a jury's recommendation. So the top court last week stayed the execution of Amos King, convicted of raping and murdering a Tarpon Springs woman in 1977.
Meanwhile, calls for suspending the death penalty in Florida are spreading beyond the fringes because of concerns about wrongful convictions. Twenty-three inmates have been released from Florida's death row since 1977 because of wrongful convictions, far more than any other state.
The Tallahassee City Commission passed a resolution this month calling for a moratorium pending a thorough and impartial study of the system. Several dozen activists walking from Union Correctional Institution expect to arrive in Tallahassee this week. They want to give Bush thousands of signatures petitioning for a moratorium.
Highlighting the way death penalty politics are becoming more nuanced is Bill McBride, the Tampa lawyer running for governor. McBride, a combat-decorated Vietnam veteran who ran Florida's biggest law firm, is often touted as the Democrat with the broadest appeal for moderate and swing voters.
But McBride also is the only candidate calling for a temporary moratorium on executions. He describes himself as a committed supporter of capital punishment, but says he has been troubled for years about whether the system was administered fairly and whether it includes enough safeguards for defendants.
"I just think that right now you've got to take a step back and look at it," said McBride, who would suspend all executions until the pending U.S. Supreme Court case is resolved.
McBride said he wants to make sure defendants are properly represented in court and adequate safeguards are in place to prevent innocent people from being convicted.
Not long ago, a call for suspending the death penalty would have been political suicide for a statewide candidate in Florida. Some people think it still could be.
"Republicans probably could get away with that because they don't have the image of being soft on crime," said Jim Kane, a Fort Lauderdale-based pollster. "But for a Democrat to take that position is tantamount to their failure on Election Day."
McBride, of course, disagrees.
"Politically, more Floridians are on the same page I am," McBride said. "Floridians are very concerned about making sure the death penalty is administered fairly."
Polls show that public opinion about the death penalty, while still supportive, is shifting.
National Gallup polls found that 65 percent of voters supported the death penalty last fall, compared with 80 percent in 1994. An ABC/Washington Post poll last year found that 54 percent of Americans support the death penalty when they have the choice of life in prison with no chance of parole. That alternative sentence has been on the books in Florida since 1994.
Another ABC News poll last year found 51 percent of Americans favored a nationwide moratorium on executions while a commission studies how fairly death sentences are applied.
Gov. Bush, who became a Catholic after his first run for governor, said his views on the death penalty haven't changed.
"My frustration has only increased," he said last week after convicted killer Amos King was given a reprieve. King's case, he said, has "languished in court for 24 years."
Bush signed laws last year extending access to DNA testing to death row inmates and barring the execution of mentally retarded people. "I still think we should reform the system so it won't take 24 years" for a person on death row to be executed, the governor said.
Bush has presided over eight executions and has signed 13 death warrants, including some where courts founds serious flaws in the cases.
In November the governor signed three more death warrants, including King's. If executions scheduled for Feb. 5 and Feb. 7 go forward, Bush will surpass Gov. Martinez's record of nine executions during his one term.
"It is certainly one of the hardest parts of this governor's job, actually signing (death warrants) and giving that final okay," said Bush spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst. "He's not going to sign a warrant until he's sure the appeals process is completed . . . that this person is not mentally retarded and that DNA would not be a factor in determining this person's guilt or innocence."
Among the four main Democratic candidates for governor, only McBride backs a moratorium, and only Reno personally opposes the death penalty.
The former U.S. attorney general said her personal view would not stop her from signing death warrants. As Miami-Dade State Attorney for 15 years, she sent more than 100 people to death row, including one man who was later ordered released because the Florida Supreme Court found insufficient evidence to support a conviction.
"It is the law of Florida, and it is something that I can carry out when the right person is involved and it is fairly and appropriately administered," Reno said.
But is she comfortable with Florida's death penalty system and how it is carried out?
"I have not reviewed all the cases within the system, so I can't answer that," Reno said.
The other Democratic candidates, State Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami and state House Minority Leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, support the death penalty and said they would cautiously sign death warrants.
-- Times staff writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report.
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