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Three-Year Effort to Abolish Death Penalty in Florida Fails in 9-4 Justice Committee Vote

| February 8, 2013

Still in business.

Still in business.

An effort to abolish the death penalty in Florida finally got a hearing Thursday in a House committee after a three-year effort, but then quickly went down to defeat.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted 9-4 against a bill (HB 4005) that would have statutorily abolished the death penalty in the state.

But the rare vote to kill a bill in committee, rather than just bottling it up never to be heard, gave death penalty opponents their first chance to extensively argue for a repeal, following several years in which the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, has been unable to persuade Republican leaders to put the bill before a committee.

Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, offered extensive praise for committee chairman Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, for being willing to allow the debate on the often divisive and emotional issue. Gaetz also had the committee take testimony from a number of death penalty opponents, including a rabbi, a university criminology professor and a woman whose daughter and grandson were murdered but who has advocated against the death penalty.

The debate and vote on the bill preceded another discussion on potential flaws in application of the death penalty, the beginning of a discussion that may result in legislation later this year.

But Gaetz said that before debating whether to make the death penalty law better, it only made sense to take up the “threshold question … of whether Florida should even have the death penalty.”

Rehwinkel Vasilinda said she was passionate about the notion that it should not, citing the too high chance of executing someone who is innocent – considering that 24 death row inmates have been exonerated. She also cited her own personal beliefs that arise out of her Catholic faith. She also said the United States is increasingly out of step with other modern democracies, most of which have banned capital punishment.

Most of those who spoke in favor of abolishing the death penalty said it was because it was unfairly applied, and the state’s track record on wrongful convictions doesn’t seem to be very good.

Rep. Kionne McGhee, a former prosecutor who also experienced the justice system from the perspective of someone whose father and brother were murdered, said regardless of whether it’s right, the system doesn’t work.

“One innocent life taken on death row is enough to question the system,” said McGhee, D-Miami.

Rehwinkel and others also told the committee that there’s a growing sense that even if it were the right thing to do philosophically, that the expense of carrying out the death penalty is depriving communities of money that could go for other criminal justice needs.

Gaetz said he, too, was passionate about the issue, but on the other side, and believes above all else, that it serves as a deterrent in particular situations, if not more broadly.

“I like knowing today that in Florida everybody knows that if you kill a cop you will be executed,” Gaetz said. “I want everybody in prison to know that if a corrections officer is killed by your hand, you will die.”

The committee also heard a plea in favor of keeping the death penalty from another perspective. State Attorney Brad King, a central Florida prosecutor, laid out gruesome details of some of the state’s most notorious murders of children, arguing that some crimes are simply so atrocious that death for the murderer is the only option that makes any sense.

He reminded the panel about the case of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, for example, and how after being abducted and raped, she was buried alive, and investigators noted the marks on her finger nails from trying to claw her way out of a plastic bag.

Murderers chose to end those lives without due process, he said.

“By their choice, by their decision, they should be judged,” King said.

And King asked the panel what he should say to the families of the children he mentioned, who may wonder why their loved ones died but a brutal killer might be allowed to live.

“It is right to say their life is not more valuable than the little lives that they took,” King said.

Gaetz said the committee will continue to listen to death penalty opponents as it takes a broader look at fairness issues with the application of capital punishment.

–David Royse, News Service of Florida

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5 Responses for “Three-Year Effort to Abolish Death Penalty in Florida Fails in 9-4 Justice Committee Vote”

  1. Nancy N. says:

    Let’s see…it costs more than the alternative, we’re the only civilized country on the planet that still does it, and we frequently screw it up and the cost of screwing it up is that an innocent person dies.

    The fact that this issue is still even open to debate is horrifying.

  2. PCfriend says:

    they should keep it for the severely demented criminals as mentioned in the article

  3. Jackie Mulligan says:

    Thank you Attorney Brad King for standing and being the voice of the victims.

    If anything should happen with the death penalty , it should be administered sooner, and stop all the nonsense of endless appeals .

    Try thinking of the loved ones families and friends, AND THE VICTIM!

    Thank you

    Jackie Mulligan

    • Nancy N. says:

      I am so sick of people justifying their bloodthirst by excusing it with “think of the victims and their loved ones.” Not every victim and their family believes in the death penalty (or did you not even read the article?) even after having something horrible done to them. Most of us rail against the epidemic of violence in our society but then the first thing that happens when a violent crime is committed is a public outcry for state-sanctioned violence: “string them up! Execute them!” It’s just violence leading to more violence – even if it is state sanctioned, bottom line is it is still more violence. How do we expect it to stop if we don’t stand up and be the better person, and say WE will stop the cycle of using violence to solve problems?

      The system is not 100% perfect. At least 140 inmates have been exonerated and freed from death row in the U.S. More innocent ones have certainly fallen through the cracks. Do we really want to satisfy our bloodthirsty need for revenge at the risk of creating more innocent victims?

  4. m&m says:

    It’s good they kept it but now they should learn how to use it in a more timely fashion..

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