Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition
Anger over killer’s sentence provokes misguided legislation
Others will be executed for the crimes of Nikolas Cruz.
The state Legislature, at the governor’s behest, is set to jettison the unanimous jury verdict requirement that saved Cruz from the death penalty last fall.
“We can’t be in a situation where one person can just derail this,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said last week, suggesting that a single rogue juror had “vetoed” capital punishment for the Parkland killer.
Actually, three of the 12 jurors preferred a life sentence. DeSantis didn’t acknowledge that mitigating evidence, rather than nefarious intent, might have convinced the dissenting jurors to spare the mentally impaired Cruz.
On Monday, identical bills were filed in the Florida House and Senate that would set the minimum number of jurors required for a death sentence at eight.
Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill, one of the bill’s authors, called the revised standard a “much-needed reform to ensure that evil scumbags like Nikolas Cruz do not escape with just a life sentence.”
It’ll be like old times in Florida, which required only a simple majority until 2016, when the Florida Supreme Court decided the ultimate punishment demanded unanimity.
But stare decisis ( judicial adherence to precedent) ain’t what it used to be. In 2020, a more conservative state supreme court found that the Florida Constitution “does not require a unanimous jury recommendation — or any jury recommendation — before a death sentence can be imposed.”
The problem with loosening the safeguards for capital punishment in Florida is just that. It’s Florida, a state with a harrowing history of wrongful convictions, botched executions and unequal justice.
Thirty prisoners condemned to die in Florida — more than any other state — have been exonerated. And there were those ghastly incidents of incompetence in the death chamber.
In 1990 and again in 1997, prisoners suffered slow, excruciating deaths in Florida’s malfunctioning electric chair, as smoke and flames erupted from their heads. In 1999, it took a series of jolts before another prisoner stopped breathing, with blood pouring down his face.
After witnessing the grotesque spectacle, state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, also from Spring Hill, noted that the large blotch of blood on the dying man’s shirt vaguely resembled a cross — a sign, she said, that God approved of the execution.
God offered no similar gestures in 2000 and again in 2007, when the state’s bungled attempts at lethal injections kept two condemned men alive on their gurneys for more than 30 painful minutes.
Florida also has a medieval penchant for executing convicts with profound mental illnesses. A 2017 study by Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project examined 48 capital convictions from five Florida counties, finding that one of every five of those death row inmates suffered “severe mental illness.”
Florida did nothing to disprove that thesis in 2013 with the execution of John Errol Ferguson, who before his Miami murder spree, had been committed to a state mental hospital as a “grossly psychotic” paranoid schizophrenic who “did not know right from wrong nor the nature and consequences of his acts.”
South Floridian’s might also remember Albert Holland, who was executed for the 1990 murder of a Pompano Beach police officer, despite a well-documented history of mental illness and despite being found not guilty by reason of insanity in two previous robbery cases. (In a bizarre twist, a judge ruled that while Holland was sane enough to stand trial for homicide, he was too deranged to act as his own lawyer.)
DeSantis also urged legislators to reclassify child rape as a capital crime (a constitutionally dubious proposal).
That would dredge up another of those ignominious bits of racial history that offend the governor’s world view. All but two of the 43 men executed for rape convictions in Florida between 1924 and 1964 were Black.
Nationally, 405 of the 455 convicted rapists executed between 1930 and 1972 were Black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, with former confederate states accounting for 97% of all rape executions.
One wonders, in the days before DNA evidence added certainty to rape cases, how many of those men were innocent.
At the moment, in a state prison system that houses more than 15,000 convicted killers, only 297 men and three women reside on death row. Which adds a certain randomness to the question of who dies and who doesn’t in homicide cases.
A majority of Americans live in states that have either abolished or have declared a moratorium on the death penalty with its troubling economic and racial inequities — along with 144 nations that have quit executing criminals.
But an outraged reaction to the Cruz sentence is pulling criminal justice in Florida in the opposite direction, back in time, toward an ugly history.