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Florida stands firm amid death penalty debate

Despite ripples across the country, the state's support for execution is seen as unwavering.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 20, 2007


TAMPA - New Jersey ended its death penalty this week with the stroke of a governor's pen.

Whether that decision signals the beginning of the end for capital punishment elsewhere is a topic now being debated by legal experts and death penalty proponents and foes.

But this much, they say, is clear: While several states are considering ending their death penalty, Florida is not among them.

And that isn't likely to change.

"I doubt it will affect Florida," said Robert Batey, who teaches criminal law at the Stetson University College of Law. "New Jersey's decision may have an impact on states that rarely sentence people to death. There are a large number of American states that have the death penalty on the books but don't really use it."

New Jersey, which hasn't executed anyone since 1963, had only eight people on death row when Gov. Jon Corzine ended capital punishment, commuting the prisoners' sentences to life in prison without parole.

Florida, by contrast, has a death row population approaching 400. Hardly a year goes by without at least one execution. Since the death penalty's reinstatement in 1976, Florida has executed 64 people.

Earlier this year, a New Jersey commission created to examine the death penalty issued several findings.

Among them: The cost of the death penalty outweighed the costs of life in prison without parole; there was evidence the death penalty was at odds with standards of decency; and the risk of mistakenly executing an innocent person outweighs the benefit of executing the guilty.

Martin McClain, a veteran death row lawyer in Florida who has won several exonerations, said it's up to Florida's legislators to decide whether New Jersey's decision will have an impact here.

"Certainly it's a big step by the state of New Jersey," he said. "Whether it has an effect or not depends on whether anyone's listening."

***

Florida halted executions after the December 2006 execution of Angel Diaz took twice as long as is typical because the lethal mix of drugs went into his flesh instead of his bloodstream. Diaz murdered a Miami topless club manager.

After a commission formed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush studied Florida's lethal injection protocols, the state doubled the size of the death chamber and added video cameras as well as additional training.

Gov. Charlie Crist ended the moratorium in July by signing the death warrant for Mark Dean Schwab, convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing an 11-year-old Cocoa boy in 1991. His execution was stayed in November by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is reviewing whether execution by lethal injection violates the Constitution.

Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, who is on the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee, applauds New Jersey's decision. She said she sees similar problems with Florida's death penalty, including cost, racial disparity and wrongful convictions.

As of March, Florida led the nation with 22 exonerations from death row. The issue of wrongful convictions has gained ground with DNA testing.

A 2000 study by the Palm Beach Post reported the state could save $51-million a year by punishing murderers with life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty. The newspaper calculated that the state's cost per execution was about $24-million.

"How do we get all these mistakes? How many people have been released from Florida's death row?" Wilson said. "And the death penalty itself is sinful. It's murder and a civilized society should not be murdering people."

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who served on the lethal injection commission, said that he thinks Florida's death penalty is much better than New Jersey's system, and that the majority of Florida's voters support the death penalty.

"The big difference between us is we are far more advanced in how we handle our capital cases," he said.

Florida's death penalty process has "set the standard for the world," he said, citing the quality of legal representation for the convicted.

The senators agreed that New Jersey's decision is unlikely to spur similar change in Florida.

"I'd be surprised," Crist said.

"I do not see that at all," Wilson said. "Florida's a part of the Old South."

***

Legal experts agree. The death penalty may be losing political support in a handful of states, but not here.

"Florida is so committed to the death penalty," said Laurie Levenson, professor of law at California's Loyola Law School. "I think that New Jersey may represent a trend, but not necessarily one that Florida's going to follow."

Throughout the country, though, jurors are less likely to give the death penalty now than in the past, she said. Achievements in science have made society more skeptical.

"I think that with DNA we've begun to realize how often we do make mistakes," she said. "There are constant stories of wrongful convictions. I think that's finally gotten into the public's conscious. ... I'll put it this way: It's more trouble than it's worth."

If Florida takes anything from New Jersey's decision, it should be the idea of a "morally refined death penalty," said Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School.

He urged New Jersey to keep the death penalty for the worst offenders. He believes the death penalty will remain a punishment in this society because the people want it.

"You can't subvert the popular will that long, not in this country," he said.

***

From his home in Dunnellon, Ron McAndrew closely watched the news unfolding in New Jersey.

McAndrew, 69, is a retired state prison warden who helped carry out three executions by electric chair. At first a staunch supporter of capital punishment, he came to oppose it.

If people had seen what he saw, he thinks Florida would follow New Jersey's path.

"I think it's the most wonderful step that any government has taken since 1965," McAndrew said. "And I think that New Jersey will shine like a brilliant star in the sky as the leading state in this age to abolish the death penalty nationally."

He said he had asked himself the same questions as the New Jersey commission.

"On the day of my first execution I remember standing there just seconds after we'd put this man to death and asking myself, 'What in the devil am I doing here, and why are we doing this?'" he recalled. "That question kept coming back in every execution I was involved with."

For Kent Scheidegger, legal director of California's Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, the answer for Floridians is simple:

"Justice is sometimes carried out," he said. "Sometimes executions are actually done. You do not have Ted Bundy grinning at you from a prison cell."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or 813-226-3373.

Fast facts

Florida's death penalty

1976: Year the death penalty was reinstated

64: Number of executions since then

0: Number of executions in 2007

389: Number of people on death row

14 years: Average length of stay on death row

Findings of N.J.'s death penalty commission

-Costs of the death penalty outweigh the costs of life in prison without parole.

-Increasing evidence shows that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.

-Executing a small number of guilty people in the interest of punishment is outweighed by the risk of executing an innocent person.