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Fla. Capital Punishment Ban Dies In First Committee Hearing

The death penalty lives on in Florida…at least through this Legislative session. A bill that would have abolished capital punishment in the state died in its first subcommittee hearing on Thursday. The bill’s sponsor had been trying to get it heard for three years, and she’s vowing to bring it back next year.

The death penalty was the subject of about an hour’s worth of testimony and debate before the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee overwhelmingly voted the bill down. Committee Chair Matt Gaetz and several other Republicans voted no, but he said, it was an important question for the state to consider, even though he faced criticism for putting it on the agenda.

“It will be a hallmark of this committee, as a result of our thoughtful members, that we will take up the big issues, we won’t shy away from them, and we will debate them in a thoughtful and helpful manner, and it will lead us to better public policy,” he said.

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee) sponsored the measure, H.B. 4005. She presented several arguments for abolishing capital punishment. Among them: The state has sentenced 24 people to death, who were later exonerated. Also, she said, a study from the National Research Council shows no conclusive evidence that capital punishment deters would-be criminals.

“If it does not deter crime, and we have ways to keep people safe in maximum-security prisons, then what good does the death penalty do?” she asked.

Several faith leaders also came in support of the bill. One was Rabbi Jack Romberg, of Tallahassee’s Temple Israel. He said, many faiths oppose the death penalty. He told a story of rabbis who were discussing capital punishment 1,800 years ago.

“They reached the judgment that, really, we humans are too imperfect to reach a judgment on who should live and who should die,” he said.

But, on in opposition to the bill, Florida Sheriffs Association spokeswoman Electra Bustle said, nothing less than death is good enough sometimes.

“Capital punishment is the only appropriate response to especially heinous crimes,” she said.

She said there’s also a current law that automatically gives the death penalty to someone convicted of killing a law enforcement officer. And she’s afraid their lives would be put more in danger if that threat were taken away.

And Gaetz said, as passionate as supporters of the bill are, he’s equally passionate about preserving the death penalty.

“Who are we as a Legislature to now tell juries that they don’t have the opportunity to recommend a death sentence if in fact they’ve endured the fatigue and are willing to impose that sentence?” he asked.

Rewinkel Vasalinda said, she’s grateful to Republican House leaders for allowing the issue to be aired in committee, adding, this isn’t the end for her and her supporters.

“Obviously, this isn’t something that I’m going to let go of. It’s a very important issue for people that people feel very passionate about, and it’s not a practical way to be spending taxpayer money,” she said.

The committee is now looking at ways to make the capital punishment system more efficient. Members are considering how to shorten the time inmates are on death row before being executed.