Sunday, January 20, 2008

Our view: A broken process

Executions freeze opens door for review of Florida's flawed death penalty system

The Supreme Court heard arguments last week in a Kentucky case on whether the lethal injection method Florida and other states use to execute death row criminals violates the constitutional ban on cruel punishment.

Brevard County has a big stake in that debate.

The court stayed executions while it deliberates, including that of Mark Dean Schwab, who was scheduled to be put to death for the 1991 kidnapping, rape and murder of 11-year-old Cocoa resident Junny Rios-Martinez.

That delay prolonged the agony of Junny's family, and with it justice.

And is why the court should decide the issue for once and for all so more last-minute stays can be avoided and crime victims' families spared further uncertainty.

A ruling probably won't come before June, but it looks unlikely the court will ban lethal injection.

No matter the outcome, Florida lawmakers should use the hiatus on executions to rethink the state's death penalty system, because the possible unconstitutionality of lethal injection is the least of the problems plaguing it.

Florida has released more wrongfully convicted inmates from death row than any other state -- 22 since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

That alone shows just how broken the process is.

But a 2006 study by leading state prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges for the American Bar Association found it has numerous other faults.

Those include:

Minorities and the poor disproportionately receive death sentences.

Death penalty lawyers are paid so poorly that capable attorneys won't take the work.

Persons with severe mental disabilities have been executed.

Courts don't properly instruct juries about sentencing duties or require that death sentence verdicts be unanimous.

We continue to believe the death penalty can have a place in Florida's justice system, though it should be used only in narrowly defined and heinous crimes, such as child slayings, serial killings and the murder of police officers.

But we also believe that life without parole locked-down in a no-frills cell 23 hours a day for decades can serve as a punishment worse than death.

We also cannot say this strongly enough:

So long as the state chooses to execute persons, it bears a moral duty to make sure death penalty cases are conducted under the highest judicial standards to prevent horrible errors, such as wrongful convictions or unjust sentences due to prejudice or incompetent counsel.

On a practical level, the cost of the state's death penalty system also calls for review.

The average length of stay on death row in Florida -- where 387 prisoners now await execution -- is 12 years, according to the Department of Corrections.

Each execution costs the state $24 million, and Florida would save $51 million per year by sentencing all first-degree murderers to life in prison without parole, according to a study conducted by the Palm Beach Post in 2000.

New Jersey repealed its death penalty in Decemember in part because lawmakers found it costs more to keep a prisoner for years on death row than in prison for life. A handful of other states are also debating abolishing it.

It's time for a similar debate in Florida, and the Supreme Court's de facto moratorium on executions opens the door for legislators to begin the discussion this year.


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