A Times Editorial
The Legislature can bring honor to our state by not allowing execution as punishment for the mentally retarded.
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001
Thirteen years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court fell one vote short of finding a consensus that the execution of the mentally retarded constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Of the 35 death penalty states, only two exempted the retarded at the time. But since then, 11 more states have done so, and Florida would have followed last year had its House of Representatives been allowed to vote.
It is not too late. The issue is back before the Florida Legislature, as it will be to the end of time until the necessity is dispelled. The Senate is scheduled to take up its bill today, in a new version endorsed by the state's prosecutors, and unanimous approval is likely once again. But still the House is a question mark. Speaker Tom Feeney sent the bill to four committees, a disposition often seen as hostile, even though many members of his own Republican leadership are among its 48 co-sponsors. He promised them a full and fair hearing, but such an obstacle course for so simple a bill looks somewhat more full than fair.
What the speaker has in mind should be clearer today. The first panel, the Committee on State Administration, chaired by Rep. Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, (who is not one of the co-sponsors) is scheduled to consider it this morning.
Previous versions have been sabotaged by misleading comparisons to mental illness, an entirely separate issue. A man with the mind of a 7-year-old can't help being what he is. There is no medicine for him; there is no treatment but compassionate care. To execute such a person is, by any modern standard, an act of savagery.
Word came Monday that even the U.S. Supreme Court may be reconsidering its 1988 decision in recognition of the growing perception that execution of the retarded condemns the society that practices it. But one can't ever be sure what that court will do, or hold it accountable. Floridians can hold their Legislature accountable, and they look to the Legislature this week to bring honor rather than more dishonor to our state.