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Our gallows politics put justice at risk


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2000

At 7 a.m. today, Terry Lee Sims is scheduled to become the first person put to death in Florida by lethal injection -- sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, in that order. He may already be dead as you read this, barring a last-minute stay.

Sims was convicted of the 1977 murder of George Pfeil. Pfeil was an off-duty sheriff's deputy in Seminole County. He stumbled across a drugstore robbery while picking up his wife's prescription.

Terry Lee Sims. George Pfeil. For some reason, murder victims often get only two names. The murderers themselves almost always get three, unless they are famous, like Ted Bundy. I have no idea why.

The advent of lethal injection marks a turning point in Florida's history. We should not let it pass by routinely. Just as we first used the chair in 1924 as a humane alternative to hanging, now lethal injection is supposedly a better alternative to electrocution.

Of course, being more humane is NOT why the Legislature made this change. Our politicians acted only because the U.S. Supreme Court stopped electrocutions while it decided whether the chair was cruel and unusual.

Better to have the needle than nothing at all, the Legislature figured.

Ironically, some death penalty opponents didn't like changing to lethal injection. They worried that the more sanitized procedure would make it even easier for the public not to pay attention.

The Department of Corrections certainly seems eager to minimize the exposure. That's why the state bought the curtains to cover the window of the death chamber until the condemned is safely strapped down and hooked up.

I am looking at the receipt for these curtains. It comes right after the surgical gowns ($202), the catheterization kit ($1,540) and the IV set ($436.52). The bill comes from Coronet Fabric Mills in Gainesville.

"Draperies for Death House," the invoice says. "This includes rods & installation." As a helpful extra detail, the writer adds: "heavy brown cotton." Total price: $1,600. For that, you'd think they could have gotten a fancier material.

They can hang curtains if they like. But it does not change the fact that your hand, and mine, are on the syringe.

This is our responsibility as citizens, and we cannot avoid it. Picture it now with me. Your hand and mine. We look each other in the eye for an instant. You feel my fingers start to push.

No citizen who supports the death penalty can be unwilling to carry it out personally. Anything else is hypocrisy.

I have supported it. I have been willing.

And yet, watching the political craziness of Florida makes me less and less certain. Better to hand out only 10 death sentences a year to the worst and more certain cases, than to hand them out willy-nilly, and decide who dies in the crazy lottery we use now.

To improve its batting average, the state of Florida now is trying to strip defendants of their defenses, to take away their lawyers' powers, to rush them onto the gurney, to deny them the chance to prove their innocence with DNA testing, even to rewrite the state Constitution.

In contrast, the governor of Illinois -- the Republican governor of Illinois -- has halted all executions in his state, citing "a shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row." The Nebraska Legislature passed a moratorium on executions, but the governor vetoed it. At least a dozen states are considering similar measures.

If the price of death is to ignore fairness, then how can we be for it? Florida's politicians have gone too far because they believe no matter how far they go, they will not lose votes.

But they are wrong. Despite the current polls showing 80 percent support for capital punishment, their excesses will eventually begin to push the pendulum the other way.

There is no widespread uneasiness yet. But there are the first stirrings.

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