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Crist sticking to his theme

The gubernatorial candidate says he won't sign any other bill into law until the Legislature passes his antimurder bill.

Published June 22, 2006

JACKSONVILLE - When Attorney General Charlie Crist first demanded an "antimurder" law in Florida, some people snickered.

"Isn't murder already illegal?" they asked. And who would oppose such a law? The promurder lobby?

The answer: Some of Crist's fellow Republicans in the Legislature opposed it for financial reasons. For the past three years, they have refused to pass a bill inspired by the death of a girl from the Tampa Bay region, Carlie Brucia, and reinforced by the later deaths of two others, Jessica Lunsford and Sarah Lunde.

In all three cases, the killer or suspect was violating terms of his probation. "That's got to stop in this state," Crist said. "We've got to put an end to that."

The so-called antimurder bill would force thousands of probation violators back to court, where they could be sent to prison if a judge decided they were dangerous.

Crist's proposal is a central theme of his campaign for governor. He promises he won't sign any other bills into law until the Legislature passes the antimurder bill.

Crist is making safety a signature issue at a time when violent crime in Florida is at its lowest point since the early 1970s. Polls show Floridians are more concerned about rising property insurance costs or the quality of their kids' schools.

On the campaign trail, Crist refers to "monsters" and "creeps" who kidnap children. The subject is in his comfort zone: As a state senator, he championed tougher sentencing laws, and as attorney general, he enforces state laws.

But despite the political imperative for politicians to always appear tough on crime, the Senate said the solution wasn't quite so simple and balked at the antimurder bill's price tag.

A Senate staff analysis said the more narrowly tailored 2006 version of the bill would cost $118-million a year by 2010, mostly to build prison beds to house an estimated 1,336 inmates.

The Senate inaction came as the state was awash in nearly $5-billion in additional revenue from sales tax collections thanks to a booming economy.

"I will sign no other until they put that one on the governor's desk," he recently told a crowd of supporters in Fort Lauderdale, recalling how the antimurder bill was ridiculed.

The crowd burst into applause.

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Some legislators found the "antimurder" label obnoxious, and quintessential Crist. It's the publicity-savvy attorney general's way of affixing a catchy label to the issue of violent criminals who violated probation, returned to the street and later committed murder.

"Some actually scoffed at the name, if you can believe that. It's not funny. This is serious," Crist said in Fort Lauderdale.

The next day in St. Petersburg, a crowd of several hundred applauded Crist as he repeated the promise to sign no other bill first, and referred to the three girls' attackers as "monsters" and "creeps." He pointedly questioned the Senate's priorities for not coming up with the money for prison beds and judges.

"The Senate, unfortunately, did not take it up," Crist told the crowd at St. Petersburg High. "You know what they told us? They said, 'Charlie, it costs too much.' ''

At a breakfast meeting with supporters in Jacksonville, Crist went further: "I'm a little frustrated with some of my friends in the Legislature," he said.

Crist said it would have cost $56-million in the first year "to do the right thing." But that was an outdated and high cost estimate. The antimurder bill was greatly narrowed in scope this year to overcome its biggest political objection.

It is not even certain that the downsized version of the antimurder bill would have applied to the cases Crist cites on the campaign trail.

Carlie Brucia's assailant, Joseph Smith, was on probation for a drug charge, which is not among the qualifying offenses, mostly violent felonies, listed in the 2006 bill. But Smith had more than a dozen probation violations in his record.

Crist's legislative affairs director, Monesia Brown, said the two men linked to the other two cases would have fallen under the law because of their violent criminal histories. But Brown said that if the law had passed, defense lawyers could claim that a law was being applied after the fact to previous behavior.

"The defense certainly could raise that issue as to who it would apply to," Brown said.

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In the most recent session, the House version of the antimurder bill was sponsored by Rep. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, a candidate for attorney general.

"The list of qualifying offenses is much more modest," Negron said in March as he promoted the bill on the steps of the Old Capitol. "I tried to make those as limited to the serious felonies as possible, in negotiations with the attorney general."

The bill HB 25 passed 115-0 in the House. The Senate version raced through two committees but never reached the floor for a vote.

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who supported the bill and chairs the Senate Justice Appropriations Committee, blamed Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico.

"We were told by leadership to hold back all bills that had significant fiscal impact, and that the Senate president would make a decision at the end of session on what to do," said Victor Crist, who supports Charlie Crist. (The men are unrelated).

Lee said the bill was a casualty of competing priorities, such as juvenile justice programs.

"At the end of the day," Lee said, "it was just a question of how much money are we going to spend to grow the criminal justice infrastructure in our state in 2006?"

Lee said he had no recollection that he directed Victor Crist or any other senators to withhold action on bills with a big fiscal impact.

"You can rest assured that all 160 members of the Legislature are also against murder. We're down on murder," said Lee, a state candidate for chief financial officer.

Steve Bousquet is at or (850) 224-7263.

[Last modified June 22, 2006, 05:46:48]

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