Friday, January 15, 2010

Fewer Florida juries voting for death — why is unclear

Trend toward fewer executions evident elsewhere in nation as well.

Juries in Florida recommended 14 men die by lethal injection last year after hearing about their crimes and why the state should execute them.

The number is 10 fewer than were recommended for death in 2008, when 24 defendants were sentenced to die, according to figures kept by the Department of Corrections.

The decline continues a downward trend in the state's death sentences, mirroring what is happening across the country.

"Outside a few states, the death penalty is not a regular occurrence," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that provides analysis about the death penalty.

A year-end study by the Death Penalty Information Center reported 106 death sentences nationwide, a 63 percent drop in the past decade.

No one can point to a single direct cause for the drop, saying it's a mix of the economy, a decline in violent crimes and juries' reluctance to vote for death. It could be more states with the death penalty have added the option of life in prison without parole.

Justin Heyne is the newest member of Florida's death row. His conviction last month in Brevard County for killing a Titusville family of three earned him two life sentences and a death-penalty sentence. It pushed the state's death-row population to 391. His death sentence stemmed from his murder of a 5-year-old girl.

"There is no justification for killing a 5-year-old," said Wayne Holmes, chief of operations for the State Attorney's Office, which handled the case. "If you are going to have the death penalty, those are the type of cases where it should be used."

The highest number of death sentences since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 was in 2006, when 26 people were sent to death row. The state low came in 1979: two.

Like Florida, Texas has a reputation for populating its execution roster. But last year Texas also followed the national trend, tying its historic low for death sentences, with nine. It had nine in 2008.

The back-to-back lows show a dramatic decline for a state that averaged 34 death sentences a year during the 1990s, according to Texas news reports.

There are several theories about the decline of death sentences:

•Dieter said some jurors could be more reluctant to sentence someone to die because of exonerations in the past several years.

Last year, nine men, including one in Florida, were convicted of capital murder and then later cleared of the crime. That's the second-highest number of exonerations since the death penalty was reinstated 34 years ago.

Herman Lindsey walked away from Florida's death row in July after the state's Supreme Court tossed his 2006 conviction. He was initially sentenced to death for the murder of a Fort Lauderdale pawnshop worker. The high court found evidence presented at trial was legally insufficient to convict him and that the case against him was entirely circumstantial.

•Because life without parole is available, more juries may be settling for that. All states that have the death penalty have the option of life without parole, so jurors don't have to fear that a convicted killer could eventually go free, Dieter said.

•During the hard economic times, some states considered dumping the death penalty to save money. According to the center's study, 11 states had legislative proposals to repeal it in 2009.

Several studies published during the past decade show death-penalty cases can cost $2 million to $3 million per case.

New Mexico got rid of it. Connecticut came close, but the governor vetoed the bill, the study reported.

The center found that the cost kept some prosecutors from seeking it initially.

"The death penalty is an emotional and political response to crime," Dieter said. "On the practical level, it's being examined. Economic times make you look at the practical more."

Local prosecutors, however, say money doesn't play a part in their decisions. In Florida, prosecutors' budgets come from the state and not local counties, so they are not pressured.

"It would never be factor in deciding," said Randy Means, a spokesman for the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office, which is currently seeking death in eight pending homicide cases.

The rate of sentencing outpaces the number of executed in Florida. In 2009, two men were put to death.

Wayne Tomkins died Feb. 11. He was convicted in 1985 for murdering his girlfriend's daughter in Tampa.

John Marek was convicted in 1984 for raping and strangling a woman whose body was later found in a lifeguard tower in Broward County. Marek was executed Aug. 19.

Though state juries show a dip in deciding on death sentences, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is still signing death warrants.

Earlier this week, he signed a Feb. 16 death warrant for Martin Grossman, who was convicted of killing a state wildlife officer 25 years ago in Pinellas County.

Grossman stands to be Florida's first execution of 2010.


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