Florida Prosecutors Take Issue With National Death Row Report

Oct 11, 2013

Florida's most recent execution took place at the Florida State Prison in Starke.
Credit Florida Department of Corrections

More than a third of the nation’s death sentences were given out in just 1 percent of counties last year —and three of the top-sentencing districts are in Florida. That’s according to a new national study. But prosecutors from one of those Florida districts say the study is misleading.

National media have picked up the report, titled “The 2 Percent Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All.”  In it, researchers at the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center say a fifth of the nation’s counties have produced all current death row inmates.

Death Penalty Information Center Director Richard Dieter says, “We look at some of the problems and we have been critical of the death penalty, but we don’t take a position on the death penalty itself.”

He says the unequal application of death sentences calls into question the fairness of capital punishment. And Florida International University law professor Steven Harper agrees that’s a cause for concern.

Harper says, “There’s a huge difference in how prosecutors seek the death penalty, what their policies and procedures are, and that leads to, again, more randomness and more arbitrary and capricious imposition of the death penalty.”

Harper says Florida offers some good examples of randomness: “In Duval County, the prosecutor does not have written guidelines and seeks the death penalty in many more cases than the prosecutor does in Miami-Dade County.”

The study cites Jacksonville’s county, Duval, as having one of the largest death-row populations in the country. Its three-county judicial district is also singled out for originating almost 30 percent of the state’s recent death sentences, although those counties have just 6 percent of the state’s population.

But Jacksonvillle Assistant State Attorney Rich Mantei says,“If we’re going to have these debates, they’re probably healthy and should be encouraged, but I wish that people would be more up front about their agendas.”

Mantei says death sentences are given for murders, and most murders happen in densely populated areas.

“There are 67 counties in Florida. Twenty-nine of them, over the last two years, have had either one murder in them or zero murders. So right off the bat, you’re talking almost 50 percent of Florida’s counties don’t even have crimes committed in them,” he says.

Mantei says he also disagrees that prosecutors who pursue death sentences are passing the cost on to all state taxpayers.

“The reason they are so costly has nothing to do with the trial and the merits and the seeking of the penalty,” he says. “It is the endless state and federal appellate work for which all of us have to pay.”

In other words, he says most of the cost of capital litigation comes after sentencing when convicts appeal.

Bernie de la Rionda is another longtime prosecutor in Jacksonville. He says it shouldn’t matter whether state attorneys in Florida’s 20 judicial circuits each have different death-penalty guidelines because Florida law already lists death-worthy factors.

“What did the victim have to go through?” he says. “And unfortunately in Jacksonville, I’ve had a bunch of death penalty cases in which person that was killed was killed by using a hammer, in which somebody just brutally beat the person over and over with a hammer. Those cases kind of cry out for the death penalty.”

But some researchers say state sentencing guidelines have expanded to include a troubling number of factors deemed worthy of death. Mark Schlakman, with the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, says it’s way past time for Florida to reexamine the entire system. Schlakman coauthored a 2006 American Bar Association report calling for Florida’s self-evaluation.

“The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors’ call for a comprehensive review of Florida’s entire death penalty process by all branches of government: that goes to the administration of justice,” he says.

The report cited several areas for concern, including Florida’s highest-in-the-nation number of death row exonerations – those people whose charges were dropped or they were acquitted or pardoned based on new evidence.