Sunday, March 7, 2010

Life or death decision

March 1, 2010

Life or death decision
Ana Rebecca Rodriguez

Staff Writer

As part of their goal to educate individuals on issues concerning the death penalty, the Tallahassee Citizens Against the Death Penalty group held a free public workshop Saturday, Feb. 25, at the LeRoy Collins Public Library. Speakers at the event presented attendees with reasons to advocate ending the death penalty, and provided information on how to do so, citing evidence in several areas including legal, ethical, religious and financial problems associated with the death penalty.

Today, Florida is among 35 states that continue to sentence using the death penalty. There are a total of 33 scheduled executions for 2010, including the scheduled execution of David Johnston in Florida on March 9.

In her welcome address, Louise Ritchie, president of the TCADP, explained the goals of the organization.

“What we are doing is trying to educate people who, in general, are against the death penalty, so that (they) feel more empowered to speak out about this issue,” said Ritchie. “We are not an organization that believes in word violence; we will not try to force you to be against the death penalty.”

The workshop began with a general overview of the issue. Sheila Meehan, immediate past president of the TCADP, shared her own experiences working with the legal aspects of the death penalty via her involvement in the case of Richard Cooper, an individual on death row, and provided statistical information on the death penalty. According to Meehan, 11 states considered abolishing the death penalty in 2009, in part, she said, because of the high cost.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court held that capital punishment was unconstitutional in the case of Furman v. Georgia and abolished the death penalty all over the country. In 1976, however, the Supreme Court overturned its decision and upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty. John Spenkelink was the first person executed in Florida in 1979 after the re-institution of the death penalty.

Meehan said that, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, as of Nov. 3, 2009, there have been 139 exonerations since 1973, meaning that those particular death row inmates have been found innocent of the crime. Florida leads the pack with a total of 23.

Most of the exonerations, said Meehan, came as the result of DNA evidence, which is collected in only 10 percent of cases. Of that 10 percent of collected DNA, it is only available another 10 percent of the time. Meehan, a former assistant director of the Innocence Project of Florida, which attempts to free inmates on death row who are innocent of the crime for which they are serving, has reviewed death penalty cases the group found suspect.

“There were many, many cases that we reviewed where we felt that this person was probably innocent, but when we went to get the actual evidence, it wasn’t there, because there is no uniform way of keeping it,” said Meehan.

The workshop continued with a presentation by Susan Gage, a former Florida Public Radio reporter who witnessed the execution of John Earl Bush in 1996 after a former boss requested she cover the story.

“To say that it changed my life is an understatement,” said Gage, who after witnessing the execution, began to further investigate the death penalty and specifically, the use of the electric chair.

“What I saw was a body that was very traumatized by that method; I started asking questions,” said Gage.

Today, as a TCADP board member, Gage continues to share her story in support of the abolishment of the death penalty.

Agnes Furey, a survivor of an attempted homicide and TCADP board member, also shared her story in support of the cause. In 1998, Furey’s 40-year-old daughter and six-year-old grandson were murdered. With the confession of the suspect, the state attorney called for the death penalty almost immediately. At first, Furey agreed with the decision.

About six months later, Furey was staffing a table for Big Bend Cares at the annual Christmas party, where she found herself across the aisle from Kindred Spirits, a group that provides support to death row inmates. After a conversation with a woman at that table, Furey said she came to a realization.

“I just had a real moment of clarity,” said Furey. “(I realized) that these are real people.”

After that conversation, Furey received a phone call from the state attorney’s office on a Thursday, where they informed her that the defendant had agreed to plead guilty to two counts of capital murder if he would not be susceptible to the death penalty. The attorney asked Furey to make a decision of whether or not to accept the plea deal by the close of business the following afternoon.

“(TCADP’s slogan), ‘Don’t kill in my name,’ is very, very real to me, because I had to make that decision,” said Furey.

Furey accepted the plea deal, and the court sentenced the defendant to two consecutive life terms.

“There is no doubt in my mind that, had the case gone to trial, he would have been sentenced to death,” said Furey. “I did not want to tell (my daughter’s other children) that it’s OK to kill someone. It wasn’t OK for him to kill my daughter, and it’s not OK for us to kill him.”

Florida State University religion Professor Emeritus and TCADP board member Walter Moore related religious and spiritual views against the death penalty through Christianity, while Shimon Gottschalk, FSU social work professor Emeritus and TCADP board member, communicated similar views via Judaism.

Sarah Bacon, FSU professor of criminology, provided information on three of the problems with the administration of capital punishment, including the issues of botched executions and the question of cruel and unusual punishment within those instances.

According to Bacon, the American Veterinary Association has reviewed the method used in lethal injection execution and determined that those methods would not be appropriate to euthanize animals.

The second issue Bacon raised was that of innocence, once again referring to the fact of the number of exonerations since 1973. Bacon referred to the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man who was convicted in 1992 and executed in 2004 for the murder of his three children in an apparent arson fire. Since his execution, arson experts and fire investigators have come forth and declared that the fire that killed Willingham’s three children was accidental and not caused by arson.

The final issue Bacon spoke on was that of cost.

“The fact is that the death penalty is inordinately more expensive than any other viable alternative,” said Bacon.

According to Bacon, the annual cost of the capital punishment system in California is $137 million per year, and according to Bacon, is one of the least efficient systems in the nation. If the state of California were to do away with the death penalty completely, however, and instead recommend life in prison, the cost to taxpayers would be $11.5 million per year.

According to Bacon, Florida could save about $51 million per year if the state decided to abolish the death penalty.

The last speaker, Mike McCarron, executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference, provided tips on how to lobby effectively against the death penalty. McCarron provided sample letters to send to state legislators and governors, as well as handouts detailing ways to meet with legislators and aids in person.

According to McCarron, it is important to first know what you want to say. He suggests beginning by making a list of bills or issues of interest, sketching out a speaking outline and then scheduling an appointment.

For more information, visit the TCADP’s Web site at, or their Facebook group at “Tallahassee Citizens Against the Death Penalty.”

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