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State executes Chandler

Oba Chandler

By Tom Flanigan


Tallahassee, FL – The State of Florida conducted its second execution so far this year on November fifteenth. The day before, Tom Flanigan reports legal experts, academics and even a former death row inmate met to talk about the way the state imposes the ultimate punishment.

Sixty-five year old Oba Chandler died for the murders of Joan Rogers, and her teenage daughters Michelle and Christie, which took place in Tampa in 1989. Chandler became the seventy-first person executed in Florida since the U-S Supreme Court allowed the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1972. Florida, by the way, was the first state to re-introduce execution after the high court ruling. Not everyone who has sat on Florida death row has actually gone to their death. Take the case of Juan Melendez. He spent seventeen years there after being convicted for the murder of an Auburndale man in 1983. Melendez recalls what it was like when other inmates met their fate in the state's electric chair.

"I can hear this... That still stays in my mind. And I knew precisely the time when they burned the life out of him because the lights go on and off."

But the court said the State of Florida got the wrong man when they condemned Juan Melendez. He was exonerated and released in 2002. He was also one of the speakers during an intensive two-hour forum the day before the Chandler execution. It was hosted by the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University. Mark Schlakman is the center's program director.

"Our goal today is to recast the way that Republicans, Democrats alike, those who are pro-law enforcement - really all of us - can maneuver through a very difficult dynamic, especially heightened during elections."

About ten years ago, the American Bar Association released its assessment of how the death penalty is imposed in a number of states, including Florida. Sandy D'Alemberte was A-B-A president in the early 1990s.

"The American Bar Association after some study said, This system's broke. It's not functioning properly. We need to have a moratorium on the death penalty. A lot of that came out of studies that had been done in Illinois and other places that demonstrated that people had been wrongfully convicted."

At least one person in the Florida Legislature wants to take that moratorium a step further. She is Democratic State Representative Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda of Tallahassee.

"I filed it last year. It's a repeal bill - full repeal of the death penalty - and I did it again this year. And I filed the bill in response to, at least immediately to, the speaker's call for us to look for items in the budget that could be helpful to cut out wasteful spending."

Her rationale being that, even if the Republican majority in the legislature likes the death penalty on principle, they may like spending cuts even more. There is also a Republican bill that would change, rather than abolish the Florida death penalty. It comes from Senator Thad Altman of Melbourne. Today, the state requires a unanimous jury verdict to convict, but only a simple majority vote by a jury to impose the death sentence. Altman notes that Florida is the only state in which that happens.

"You know, forty-nine to one, that's pretty compelling and I think that alone should give us cause to step back, to look at the way we're doing things here in Florida."

There will be many contentious issues coming up in the 2012 session and lawmakers certainly aren't looking for one more. But if the death penalty bills do come up for a serious hearing, there may actually be - for the first time - some points that even old political and philosophical opponents may be able to agree on.