Monday, August 6, 2007

Death Penalty: Do It Right

Ending capital punishment is the only sure way to end the endless debate about the death penalty. That, however, is unlikely to happen, at least anytime soon. Arguments about its tremendous cost (given the lengthy appeal process), its morality, its potential for killing innocent people and its dubious effectiveness as a crime deterrent have barely dented widespread public sentiment that killing killers is just and appropriate for victims and for society.

Fine. But so long as capital punishment remains the law of our state, Florida's officials must ensure that it is carried out as efficiently and humanely as possible.

And that is the point Circuit Judge Carven Angel of Ocala is making in the case of Ian Deco Lightbourne, 47, convicted of the 1981 murder of horse breeder Nancy O'Farrell.

The Commission on Capital Cases' report on Lightbourne said Lightbourne broke into O'Farrell's home, raped her, then shot her in the left side of the face with a .25-caliber automatic pistol to keep her from identifying him.

Not long after the murder, Lightbourne was pulled over by police investigating a suspicious vehicle call. The officers found a .25-caliber weapon when they patted down Lightbourne. Medical experts at trial testified traces of semen and pubic hair at the scene linked Lightbourne to the murder.

The trail jury unanimously voted for the death penalty. The Florida Supreme Court reviewed and affirmed the verdict in 1983. The case has since been reviewed many other times. With those reviews nearing exhaustion, Lightbourne turns to the death penalty itself.

Angel understands the argument - more like a cliche at this point - that convicted killers cared nothing about their victims' rights or humanity.

But in death-penalty cases, the state is still killing human beings in the name of all the people of Florida. As such, the state officials have a duty to see that this punishment does not slouch toward barbarism simply to satisfy a blood lust.

Angel recently granted Lightbourne a stay of execution until the Department of Corrections can revise death-row protocol to be more explicit in outlining qualifications, training and duties of the executioner and his assistants. Angel's proposed changes would also mandate the state to regularly certify the functioning of equipment in the death chamber.

The only qualifications for the executioner is that he or she must be at least 18 years old. "Our objective is to carry out a process that is consistent with evolving notions of the decency of man," Angel said in his ruling last month. "It is not going to involve unnecessary lingering, or wanton infliction of pain or lingering death."

That observation sprang from the death of condemned killer Angel Diaz, whose Dec. 13 execution was initially botched by prison officials. Diaz required an unusual second round of fatal chemicals and he took 34 minutes to die, about twice the normal time.

The Diaz case prompted then-Gov. Jeb Bush to appoint a special commission that included doctors, lawyers, scientists and law-enforcement officials to determine whether the state's practices satisfied "humanity, constitutional imperative and common sense." The report produced 37 recommendations for improving the process; the Department of Corrections concurred with them. The DOC has doubled the size of the death chamber and given those on the execution team additional training.

Still, D. Todd Doss, a death row defense lawyer representing Diaz's family, told the St. Petersburg Times that said the new execution protocol could still allow for another botched execution. "There are still some serious concerns there," said Doss. "They didn't outline training and qualifications. It's discretionary with no guidance whatsoever. There's still not very good auditing procedures."

Judge Angel agrees they need more work. His points will soon be considered by the Florida Supreme Court.

Whether the high court agrees that the state has already done enough to safeguard the humane death of inmates or sides with Angel and orders further changes, Judge Angel deserves applause for at least trying to make certain that society is not becoming just like the people it wants to kill.

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