No taking back a death penalty

The following editorial was published in The Daily Sun on March 24, 2023.

OUR POSITION: We would urge lawmakers in Tallahassee to take a step back and reconsider their zeal for making it easier to hand down the death penalty in Florida.

The Florida Legislature is about to make a decision we believe is driven almost solely by the fact mass murderer Nikolas Cruz escaped the death penalty.

Legislation being rushed through the 2023 session in Tallahassee would do away with Florida’s mandate that a jury must be unanimous in its verdict to hand down a death penalty. It’s a common requirement among most all states in the U.S.

Cruz, we’re certain you’ll remember, was the teenage assailant who murdered 17 students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. He pleaded guilty and was spared the death penalty when the jury did not reach a unanimous decision.

That verdict upset so many — especially the parents of the innocent young lives cut short — that Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill sponsored SB 450 to do away with the requirement that all 12 jurors agree on the death penalty.

We can concur that if anyone ever deserved the death penalty, it was Cruz. His cold, calculated actions gave us no reason to be merciful.

If the legislation passes, it would only require eight members of a 12-person jury to hand out a death sentence. Lawmakers have, however, included language in the bill that would give a judge the right to change that verdict at their own discretion. We believe that was an important and needed inclusion.

The bill would affect only the sentencing process and not impact the guilt or innocence of a suspect in murder cases. Juries would still have to be unanimous in finding defendants guilty before sentencing could begin.

The Senate Rules Committee has approved the bill and it will go to the full Senate for a vote any day now — perhaps even before you read this.

We understand the reasoning behind the bill. As it stands now, one person can sabotage a death penalty decision in a protest vote. There is no doubt a unanimous decision sets a high bar.

But there is another side to the argument that has to be considered.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, said a unanimous vote is a good idea, noting “it’s hard to reverse an execution.”

And there is no doubt more than a few people have been wrongly convicted in Florida — and the nation.

Thomas Raynard James had been in prison 30 years before a Miami attorney found evidence to overturn his murder conviction. And he’s just one example.

According to Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty:

• There have been 30 exonerations of people on Florida Death Row since 1973 due to evidence of wrongful conviction – highest in the nation.

• Three-fourths (22) of exonerated Florida Death Row survivors are people of color: 17 Black, 5 Latino, 8 white.

• 99 Floridians have been put to death since executions re-started in 1979.

• For every three people executed in Florida, one innocent person on Death Row has been exonerated and released.

• 333 people are awaiting execution on Florida’s Death Row.

• Florida taxpayers pay more than $51 million per year to try to enforce the death penalty, over and above the cost seeking life in prison without parole for these same defendants ($1 million a week).

If the bill passes the Legislature, there will almost surely be a challenge and the chance the U.S. Supreme Court would find the law unconstitutional.

We’re not taking a stand against the death penalty necessarily. We just believe our legislators should proceed with good reasoning and not as a reaction to any specific case.