Fix or Nix Death Penalty

By Daily Editorials

October 25, 2016 4 min read

Florida has botched executions and the way it sentences people to death so badly that it leads the nation in death-row exonerations.

Yet state lawmakers have made only superficial changes to the death penalty, brushing off problems and then blaming the courts that call them on their failure to get it right.

The latest example is the Florida Supreme Court's decision last week to require unanimous jury votes for death sentences. Florida had been one of just three states with the death penalty that did not require unanimity in verdicts.

The U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled against Florida's death sentencing system in January, finding that it was unconstitutional that jurors recommended death but judges retained the power to impose the sentence.

State lawmakers should have known that was just the beginning of problems with the death penalty. But given the opportunities to make major changes, they instead passed a half-baked compromise: changing the simple majority required for death sentences to a standard that 10 out of 12 jurors must agree to impose such a sentence.

In ruling the new standard is insufficient, the state Supreme Court sent the whole system into disarray. Some believe the ruling could throw out the sentences for all 386 inmates currently facing executions, the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau reported.

Defense lawyers said the ruling leaves the state without a functioning death penalty until the legislature rewrites the law. But a spokeswoman for Senate President-designate Joe Negron said unanimous verdicts can be implemented with or without legislative action.

Lawmakers need to stop shirking their responsibility to address problems with the death penalty. Chief among them is the fact that Florida leads the nation with 26 death-row exonerations since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Requiring unanimous jury verdicts might help, but problems with the death penalty run deeper. Researchers and legal groups have for years reported problems such as racial and geographic disparities in death sentences in Florida, and the low pay and qualifications of defense attorneys in capital cases.

Florida hasn't even been able to conduct executions properly, from the inmate who caught fire in the state's electric chair to the inmate whose lethal injection was botched.

The death penalty is falling out of favor nationally but seems most appropriate for heinous crimes in which the murderer's guilt is without question, such as the Gainesville student murders in 1990. But it never hurts to re-examine whether delivering retribution for these crimes is worth the problems with the death penalty.

State lawmakers have few if any responsibilities more serious than overseeing the state's power to take the life of one of its own citizens. They haven't done a good job, sending the whole system into disarray. They need to finally take responsibility for doing it right or join other states in moving away from it.

REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD

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