Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Death In the Florida Panhandle

Florida leads the nation in one especially dubious category and the Florida Panhandle is disproportionately responsible for it, according to the newly-released 454-page A.B.A. "Florida Death Penalty Assessment Report".

As one south Florida newspaper explains:
"Florida leads the nation in Death Row exonerations, 22 of them since the penalty was reinstated in 1973. During the same time, Florida executed 60 Death Row inmates.

'Over one exoneration for every three executions,' according to the report."
That particular news article doesn't mention it, but the study also found that north Florida and the Panhandle have accounted over at least the past two decades for more than one-third of all death sentences in the state -- a grossly disportionate percentage given the substantially smaller local population.

The Florida report was authored by a panel of in-state experts who have "varying perspectives about the death penalty." Some favor it, some oppose it, and some are in between. But all agree on the report's findings that as it is administered now capital punishment in Florida is grossly unjust.

The analysis is the latest in an ongoing series of state-by-state reports begun by the American Bar Association in 2003. An introduction to the latest report explains:
"In addition to the Florida assessment, the Project has released state assessments of Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia. In the future, it plans to release reports in, at a minimum, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia."
Divided as it was between death penalty proponents and opponents, the Florida report panel was unanimous in finding "many... substantial... shortcomings" in the application of the Florida death penalty. In fact, as the Miami Herald counts them, Florida complies with only 8 of 93 specific legal standards adopted by the A.B.A. for the imposition of capital punishment.

Florida leads the nation in condemning the innocent to death-row, or at least in getting caught at it. As the report states, "since 1973, the State of Florida has exonerated twenty-two death-row inmates, which is more than any other state in the nation."

In other words, as a state we condemn to death far too many innocent or undeserving defendants. Something's rotten in the Florida criminal justice system. The Florida report identifies these potential causes:

  • Inadequate compensation for court-appointed defense attorneys.

    Because of state law and agency rules, both public defenders and private attorneys appointed to defend co-defendants in conflict cases are paid so poorly that most "experienced and qualified attorneys" won't take on capital cases and cannot afford to advance "the funds necessary to present a vigorous defense." In some cases, private attorneys appointed to defend a death-penalty defendant are paid less than $3,500 per year for all the work they do on the case. It's not an easy thing for tax-averse Floridians to accept, but if we want a justice system we can be proud of -- and grateful for, in the event we are unexpectedly enmeshed in it -- we'll have to pay for it.

  • Significant Capital Juror Confusion.

    Many jurors "are confused about their role and responsibilities when deciding whether to impose a death sentence." They do not understand how to evaluate penalty-phase evidence, they misapprehend the burdens of proof, and in one study "over 36 percent of interviewed Florida capital jurors incorrectly believed that they were required to sentence the defendant to death... ." To be sure, juror education is the first responsibility of trial judges and lawyers. But other institutions also have a responsibility for this kind of civic education: schools, churches, civic groups, journalists, the electronic media, parents in the home.

  • Lack of Unanimity in Jury Sentencing Decisions

    As the report observes, "The Florida Supreme Court recently noted that 'Florida is now the only state in the country that allows a jury to ... recommend a sentence of death by a mere majority vote.'" The supreme court has urged the legislature to consider changing the law, but to date nothing has been done.

  • Florida law grants excessive discretion to hanging judges.

    State law incorrectly (and quite probably unconstitutionally, after two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings) allows state court trial judges to override a jury's decision for life imprisnment rather than capital punishment. The ABA report notes:

    "A recent study of death penalty cases in Florida and nationwide found: (1) that when deciding whether to override a jury’s recommendation for a life sentence without the possibility of parole, trial judges take into account the potential 'repercussions of an unpopular decision in a capital case' ... 'especially so in the run up to judicial elections;' and (2) that the practice of judicial override makes jurors feel less personally responsible for the sentencing decision... ."
  • Secrecy of the State's Clemency Process. According to the report's authors, "Full and proper use of the clemency process is essential to guaranteeing fairness in the administration of the death penalty." In Florida, however, the state clemency decision-making process is 'ambiguous'; lawful standards are non-existent; and even the final decisions to grant or deny clemency are treated as 'confidential.' In light of the high number of wrongly-condemned prisoners "and the fact that clemency has not been granted to a death-sentenced inmate since 1983" the report finds "Florida’s clemency process is adequate."
  • The Florida capital punishment system is rife with 'racial disparities.' Studies have found that in Florida "a criminal defendant in a capital case is, other things being equal, 3.4 times more likely to receive the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is African-American." Indeed, "since Florida reinstated the death penalty, there have been no executions of white defendants for killing African-American victims" but"those convicted of killing white victims are far more likely to receive a death sentence... ." Racism is alive and well in the jury box as well as on the bench.

  • Geographic Disparities and Excessive Prosecutorial Discretion. The report points out that death penalties in Florida are generated out of less than half of all Florida counties, and nowhere more often than in the Panhandle and adjacent areas of North Florida:

    "The death sentences of the sixty individuals who have been executed in Florida since 1972 were imposed in thirty of Florida’s sixty-seven counties. Similarly, of the fifteen new death sentences in 2001, three (or 20 percent) came from the First, Second, and Third Judicial Circuits. [The first judicial circuit includes the Pensacola-Ft. Walton area.] The cause of these geographic disparities is unclear, but one possible variable is the charging decision. Research in other states indicate that charging practices vary from prosecutor to prosecutor and few of the prosecutor offices in Florida that we contacted have written polices governing the charging decision. Research also suggests that some capital charging decisions in Florida are influenced by racial factors."
  • Death Sentences Imposed on the Mentally Ill."The State of Florida has a significant number of people with severe mental disabilities on death row, some of whom were disabled at the time of the offense and others of whom became seriously ill after conviction and sentence."

One cannot review these factors without coming to the conclusion that when it comes to capital punishment ignorance, race, and petty politics play the largest parts in mis-loading the scales of justice in Florida. Jurors are woefully undereducated. Judges, legislators, and state officials, including a succession of governors, have not had the courage to lead reforms by creating or funding a fair, competent and even-handed criminal justice system.

Floridians have grown infamous in some quarters of the nation for what is perceived as our rank me-first-ism; perhaps nowhere more so than the Panhandle. 'I've got mine,' so it is said we think, 'so to hell with you.' To such an attitude others attribute our underfunded schools, our painfully inadquate public transportation and over-crowded roads system, the always-predictably bitter opposition to civic improvements for the public at large, and the too-frequent destruction of an environment that we should be preserving for future generations, to mention just a few of our more obvious shortcomings.

However unpleasant it is to contemplate the subject, whether, when, and how we collectively put to death another human being for a heinous crime is an irreversibly permanent decision. Once done, there is no second chance. In that, if nothing else, we define our aspirations for justice.

When we are repeatedly shown by studies like the A.B.A. report, and countless others that have preceded it, solid evidence that grave mistakes have been made and innocent people executed, we need to understand that our response to that reality defines our morality, individually as well as collectively. In a democracy, it isn't "the state" that kills innocent people. It is each and every one of us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very well written article.
It's a pleasure to read. (Not the content, obviously) but the literary quality.

Broward County resident