State News
5:10 pm
Fri January 4, 2013

Lawmakers Seek To Abolish, Reform Fla. Death Penalty

Florida is the state with the most people who were sentenced to death but later acquitted of their crimes. The state’s 24th overturned conviction came in December. Seth Penalvar was acquitted of murdering three people in Miramar after his third trial. He’d been in prison since 1994 while appealing the conviction.

Cases like Penalvar’s have critics calling for Florida to reevaluate capital punishment. Mark Elliott, executive director of a coalition called Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said. “Step one would be for Governor Scott to act and call a halt to executions to prevent the possible execution of other wrongfully convicted people.”

He says, he perceives an inequity between criminals who get life in prison versus those who get death. He said, about 90 percent of people sentenced to death couldn’t afford a lawyer when they were convicted. He also noted that in the state’s history, black and white people have been sentenced to death for killing white people, but not once has a white person gotten death for killing a black person.

“In the South, especially the deep South, we have traditions,” he said. “And some are wonderful traditions, and some are just old, bad habits that need to change, whether it’s lynching people, hanging them, shooting them, injecting them with poison, electrocuting them.”

Last year, more than a quarter of new death sentences in the U.S. came from Florida. And of the 22 in the state, about a quarter of those came from Jacksonville.

Elliott said, there’s no state oversight over the death penalty process to ensure a statewide standard. He says the current system lets prosecutors look tough on crime.  

“So it’s an incentive for the state attorneys to get money directly from the state treasury and pursue these expensive, high-profile death cases,” he said.

With the appeals process, Elliott said, death sentences end up costing the state at least five times more than life sentences without parole.

And state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee), wants to abolish the death penalty altogether and use that money elsewhere: “More FDLE labs, more CSI, more police and law enforcement that are out on the streets. I’d like to see that money shifted, and I’d like to see our energy shifted toward the prevention of crime and catching criminals and putting them away,” she said.

Rehwinkel Vasilinda tried to get the death penalty abolished last session, but in her words, ‘It went down in flames.’ She said, she learned that lawmakers of every party are reluctant to touch capital punishment because of the perception that abolishing it makes you easy on crime. But, she said, study after study has shown it’s not a deterrent to would-be criminals.

“Look at our role as legislators and whether we are in the business of vengeance or whether we are in the business of helping to protect the citizens that we represent against dastardly criminals,” she said.

Meanwhile state Sen. Thad Altman (R-Melbourne) has filed a bill that would require a jury to unanimously choose the death penalty. Florida is one of just two states that allow capital punishment yet don’t require a unanimous jury vote.

Gov. Scott, who signed three death warrants last year, has said it’s his duty to uphold the law of Florida. After he signed one of them, he said, “As governor, it’s a very solemn obligation to do this, so I spend a lot of time praying about it.

Scott’s office did not respond before this story’s deadline about whether he’s considering halting executions. Florida currently has 407 people on death row.