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    Capital punishment critic says report plays politics with death

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 21, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Abraham Bonowitz is suspicious of a new state report describing 23 inmates whose death sentences were overturned.

    "It appears that once again we have evidence that politicians are willing to use the death penalty -- the tragedy of murder -- to advance a political career," said Bonowitz, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

    The report was done by the Commission on Capital Cases, led by state Sen. Locke Burt, an Ormond Beach Republican running for attorney general on a law enforcement platform. It concluded that few of the 23 inmates in question were actually innocent.

    Burt said it bothers him when death penalty opponents refer to innocent people released from death row. Some inmates were not retried because witnesses had died or because they were already in jail for other crimes.

    Such people are hardly innocent, Burt said.

    But lawyers who represent death penalty cases saythe U.S. legal system assumesthat a person is innocent until proven guilty.

    "One could technically say he is innocent until proven guilty again," said Mike Reiter of the North Florida Capital Collateral Regional Council, a state-funded agency that assigns lawyers to death penalty cases.

    "That's one way of looking at it," Burt responded during Thursday's commission meeting.

    But if anyone is playing politics with the overturned sentences, Burt said, it is the death penalty opponents. "The people who use these 23 cases to make a political point are ignoring the victims," he said.

    He rejected any calls for a temporary moratorium on executions, as Illinois has done, and said the report shows that the system works. "The premise is that because 23 cases have been overturned, the system is broken. I say just the opposite. It means we are looking at the cases hard," Burt said.

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