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Amendment 1 could prove deadly for kids

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- There have doubtless been children among Saddam Hussein's numberless victims, but not even he asserts the right to kill them legally. Among the 90 nations that still practice capital punishment, all but a handful have renounced its use against juveniles. The exceptions include Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United States of America.

Such company we keep.

The subject is timely because on Nov. 5 the voters of Florida are likely to ratify a constitutional amendment that would permit 16-year-olds to be sentenced to death.

In the not-so-ancient past, Florida imposed the death sentence on boys as young as 14. That was rampant racism at work; one would hope we had learned something since then.

The ballot proposal is Amendment 1, whose summary is three times longer than the operative part. The text itself is identical to one the Legislature put on the 1998 ballot lest the Florida Supreme Court shut down the electric chair, in which several people had been embarrassingly set afire as they died. Two years after the voters approved it, the court said the ballot summary was misleading and voided the referendum. But by that time, even the Legislature was grossed out at the electric chair and prescribed lethal injection.

The legislators insisted, however, on re-enacting the now-unnecessary amendment, just to put the court in its place.

The amendment says that any punishment (including, theoretically, life for forging a $5 check) -- is acceptable so long as it's not cruel and unusual. That's the federal constitutional language, a huge change from Florida's present Declaration of Rights, which excludes punishments that are cruel or unusual. The amendment also orders the Florida Supreme Court to interpret this as the U.S. Supreme Court does.

What irony: A bunch of political hacks who yammer endlessly about states' rights in every other context are slavering to surrender this little bit of Florida's superior sovereignty.

In the wisdom of the Washington court, it is cruel and unusual to execute people for crimes committed when they are 15 or younger. But not when they are 16 or older.

The Florida court does not recognize the death penalty as inherently "cruel" but has ruled that it is unusual (though not unheard of) to execute 16-year olds in the modern United States of America.

There is debate on the point, but many who follow Florida's case law on capital punishment believe that Amendment 1 would lower Florida's death-eligible age from 17 to 16. The sponsors effectively conceded the point by promising to pass separate legislation to protect 16-year-olds.

But of course the main amendment passed and the promised legislation did not.

It will be back, regardless of Amendment 1. A national movement is under way to persuade Florida and 21 other states to raise the bar to age 18. Sixteen other states and the federal government already have set it there. Only a few more, perhaps, would persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to do the same.

It was in the same fashion that the court was moved earlier this year to prohibit execution of the mentally retarded. Florida was instrumental, thanks in large part to Gov. Jeb Bush's decision to support the bill.

Al Cardenas, the state Republican chairman, had much to do with it, too. His unsolicited endorsement for the bill, two years earlier, was significant and influential.

Given that history, it was an unpleasant surprise when the Republican Party endorsed Amendment 1. It is one thing for brain-dead legislators to exploit the death penalty; a political party should be above that. Especially one that Cardenas chairs.

So I sent him an e-mail asking if that wasn't out of character for him. He said he preferred to discuss the issue in person, and so we did.

Cardenas, who is a lawyer, doesn't agree that Amendment 1 puts 16-year-olds at risk. But on the other hand he thinks all juveniles should be exempt -- as they are virtually everywhere else in the world -- and he will support the legislation to do that.

In his view, legislators have balked at passing it only because "the whole concept of the death penalty was under attack." If Amendment 1 is ratified, however, there would be a "greater confidence level" among legislators that they could exempt juveniles and make other "peripheral" changes.

For what it's worth -- which ought to be lot -- he thinks the death penalty is justifiable as a punishment but not as a deterrent.

"Really," he said, "there's not much in terms of empirical evidence that it deters murders. If your rationale for a death penalty is prevention, you're not thinking."

Come to think of it, Maryland and Virginia are death penalty states. Perhaps nobody told the sniper.

Where the death penalty is supremely effective is in its use as a political weapon. It is to the Florida Legislature as the Coliseum was to the caesars.

In modern times, however, the Coliseum has been illuminated to protest executions. Florida did not take notice. But by all that's holy, do we have to kill kids?

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