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    Death penalty opponents point to flaws

    Among the speakers at a Capitol rally was a man freed from death row.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001

    TALLAHASSEE -- David Mack doesn't support a state moratorium on the death penalty. He wants it eradicated.

    "I'm an abolitionist," Mack told the small group that gathered Monday on the steps of the Old Capitol to demand that the state study its administration of the death penalty.

    "It values white life over black life," said Mack, who has investigated capital cases for signs of prosecutorial misconduct or inadequate legal representation.

    Although speakers at Monday's rally varied in their degree of opposition to the death penalty, all agreed that Florida's system of executing criminals is hopelessly flawed and should be halted until those problems are worked out.

    "I hope this governor and this Legislature have the courage to say, 'Wait, we've got to look at this,' " said defense attorney Barry Scheck, who represents the family of Frank Lee Smith. Smith died of cancer last year, after 14 years on death row, but 11 months before DNA evidence cleared him of the rape and murder for which he was convicted.

    Illinois, which has freed at least 12 condemned inmates, has attracted most of the national publicity lately. But it is Florida -- with 20 death row survivors -- that leads the nation in wrongful death sentences.

    Three of the 20 came within 16 hours of the electric chair.

    "Every time an innocent person is arrested, indicted, sentenced to death or, God forbid, executed, there are perpetrators out there potentially committing more crimes," Scheck said.

    Speakers outlined several bills proposed in the Florida Legislature this year with which they agree, such as one that would give inmates access to DNA tests that could prove their innocence. Another would prohibit the execution of mentally retarded inmates.

    But they oppose a proposed constitutional amendment that they say would allow the state to execute more criminals who were juveniles at the time they committed the offense.

    Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said his group is working on the DNA bill. But he disagrees with Monday's speakers that Florida's death row needs an overhaul.

    "We certainly don't believe there needs to be a moratorium on the death penalty in Florida," Jacobs said.

    Other speakers Monday included Dave Keaton, who was freed from death row 28 years ago.

    "If the state of Florida had its way, I would not be here today," Keaton said.

    "I always believed before I went to jail that anyone who went to prison was guilty -- that the system just doesn't make that kind of mistake," he added.

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