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    A Times Editorial

    Pondering punishment

    The death penalty doesn't have to be repealed, but it does have to be reformed if Florida is to stop wasting time, money and, worst of all, lives.


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 19, 2002


    Jeb Bush spoke the other day, as he has before, of taking inspiration from his favorite governor, LeRoy Collins, whose racial moderation sharply distinguished Florida from most other Southern states during the late 1950s. Though some state Democrats may resent a Republican appropriating the image of their party's greatest hero, Collins' statesmanship transcended politics. No one's moral compass could be set by a brighter star, so Bush offers a good example to others in taking Collins as a role model for himself.

    It bears remembering, however, that Collins strode ahead of public opinion not only with respect to racial issues per se, but also in regard to the death penalty. He opposed it as governor, as a member of two state commissions two decades later, as a private citizen, and finally as a columnist for this newspaper, in which he described capital punishment as "Florida's gutter of shame."

    Collins would be heartsick to know that Floridians will vote this year on a constitutional amendment, proposed by the Legislature, that undertakes not to abolish execution but to ratify it for all time as an "authorized punishment."

    One doesn't have to believe, as Collins did, that taking life is inherently "unworthy of the state" to share the moral conviction of his objections to how capital punishment is practiced. As he expressed them to the Constitution Revision Commission in 1977, the execution of one criminal has never been proved to be a deterrent to another. Its application "is freakish, and its victims are almost always the mentally disturbed, the weak, and the poor who suffer grossly unequal application of the law. . . . Conviction of the innocent can and does occur, and death makes a miscarriage of justice irrevocable."

    Time and events have proved him right.

    More than 20 people who had been sent to Florida's death row have been released because subsequent evidence proved them to be wrongfully convicted if not probably innocent. Moreover, former Chief Justice Gerald Kogan has expressed a belief that at least three innocent people were actually put to death.

    Solid research has verified that race skews outcomes to a shocking degree. A 1991 study by professors Michael L. Radelet and Glenn L. Pierce established that Florida murders with white victims are almost six times more likely to result in a death penalty than in those with black victims. A black defendant accused of killing a white was 15 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if the victim had been black.

    Regrettably, these indictments have not done much to capture Florida's collective conscience. The Florida Supreme Court recently gave the state the benefit of procedural technicalities in a case in which the suppressed evidence of the defendant's innocence seemed strong. The court remains indifferent to the evidence of racial bias, which it rationalizes as an unintended result.

    One progressive step was taken last year when the Legislature, with the governor's support, voted to prohibit execution of the mentally retarded. But there has been no corresponding enlightenment with respect to the mentally ill.

    The Legislature insists on understaffing the legal offices that represent the condemned and refuses to recognize the many correctable ways in which justice can still miscarry.

    The death penalty does not have to be repealed in order to be reformed, but it does have to be reformed if Florida is to stop wasting time, money and, worst of all, lives on what has become little more than a symbolic ritual.

    For gubernatorial leadership on this issue, Floridians have had to look elsewhere: To Illinois, where Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions and appointed a commission that recently recommended 85 substantial reforms. To Maryland, where Gov. Parris Glendening -- an alumnus of Florida State University -- earlier this month halted all executions pending completion and legislative review of a racial bias study already in progress.

    Lately, Bush has withheld death warrants also, but only because the U.S. Supreme Court had stayed several pending its decision in an Arizona case that calls Florida's law into question.

    The issue: Should a judge rather than a jury decide whether the facts of a case justify the death penalty? The result could conceivably leave Florida without a functioning death penalty, though that does not seem likely. In either case, Bush must already be thinking about what his response should be.

    Perhaps he is asking himself what LeRoy Collins would do. But of course he knows.

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