Mark Elliott recalled the first time he attended a vigil before the execution of an inmate at Florida’s state prison in Starke. It was Feb. 23, 2000. The man about to be executed was Terry Melvin Sims. He was Jewish. His rabbi was with a group of people outside the prison, saying prayers. Elliott joined them. As it happened, Sims was to be the first inmate to be killed by lethal injection in Florida.
Then “the tragic irony of reviving this tragic legacy of the past” struck Elliott. Lethal injection got its state-sanctioned start with the Nazis during the Holocaust, to exterminate the sick, the weak, the disabled. The method was favored by Karl Brandt, personal physician to Adolph Hitler. And here was the State of Florida, adopting it as several other states were doing so, claiming it as a more “humane” method than the electric chair, and inaugurating the killings on a Jew—the 45th individual to be executed in the state since 1976.
There’s been 29 more since, the last one on Dec. 11, for a total of 74. For every three executions in the state, one individual is exonerated from Florida’s death row, now numbering 400 men and five women, 37 percent of them black (in a state where 16 percent of the population is black).
“It’s not about what the people on death row may have done. It’s about us, and what we do.”
With that, Elliott, head of Clearwater-based Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, set the tone of a day-long workshop on Florida’s “broken” capital punishment system, hosted Saturday by the Social Justice Ministry at Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church in Flagler Beach. By “us,” he meant Floridians who, as a Catholic priest put it starkly moments later, are “complicit with the death penalty.”
The highlight of the day was the couple of hours Seth Penalver and Herman Lindsey spent talking to an assembly of about 60 about the years they spent on Florida’s death row—three years for Lindsey, 18 years for Penalver—before being exonerated. They spoke briefly of the anxiety of death row, the dreams of release, the debasement of near-solitary confinement, the bitterness of serving time for an uncommitted crime and the absurdities of death row rituals. “I hear about these last meal,” Penalver said. “I don’t want no last meal. It’s sad, but it’s true. You’re talking about killing me and you ask me about a last meal?”
But they mostly spoke of a criminal justice system corrupted by its own prison-industrial complex, death row (which costs Florida taxpayers $50 million a year) being its most unforgiving.
“I’m not here for sympathy,” Lindsay said. “You have to look at me as an example of what actually is going on around here. I could have been the one executed when I was exonerated. That’s how you’ve got to look at my story.” The aim, he said, is “trying to stop what happened to me from happening in the future.”
“The only way to be safe is to abolish it,” Penalver said, describing his own three trials that unraveled systematic prosecutorial and police misconduct to secure convictions. It was the revelation of exonerating evidence that had been withheld that finally freed Penalver. On Lindsay’s case, a unanimous decision of the Florida Supreme Court freed him after remarking on the shoddiness of the case against him.
But for all the exonerations, the scarlet word–”murderer”–still sticks to the men, preventing them from getting back into the job market.
Saturday’s workshop, the third annual workshop by the Social Justice Ministry, was designed to be educational, but also to cultivate a grass-roots effort to do in Florida what other states are doing, slowly: moving away from the death penalty—as Illinois did a few years ago, as New Jersey did more recently, as Maryland just did, and as several other states are considering doing.
Florida is not among those states.
Father Phil Egitto, the pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in Daytona Beach, told the assembly of his lunch Friday with a bishop who knows Gov. Rick Scott personally, and had recently had an audience with the governor. The bishop reported Scott’s words: “I would rather there not be a death penalty because I hate signing death warrants,” the governor told the bishop. But, the governor reportedly continued, “it would be political suicide for me not to be strong on crime, and the people of Florida think that the death penalty is being strong on crime.”
“Wow,” Egitto said. “People are being executed in our name.” The priest spoke sharply of Floridians’ complicity, but also of the complicity of Catholics, who are not doing as much as they could be doing to create a groundswell against state-sponsored killings. Egitto’s is the only bus from any of the thousand or so parishes across the state that goes to Starke to hold vigils at every execution. He wants more involvement, and Saturday’s workshop was part of the effort to build that involvement.
“If we are complicit with the death penalty, we are guilty. People are being killed in my name and in your name,” Egitto said, repeatedly putting much of the guilt on his audience, and on himself. “I am accountable for the fact that the state in my name kills people. I am guilty of murder,” he said. Merely being opposed to capital punishment is not enough, he said. Nor is prayer alone. Prayer, he said, is easy. But it absolves the individual of doing heavier lifting. He wants people to get involved, to get on his bus, to start organizing their own buses, exhortations that dovetailed with Elliott’s, at the end of the day, to fill out petitions, to write letters to the governor’s office, to make calls, to write legislators about pending legislation that would actually speed up executions in the state, and of course to join vigils and fuel a movement whose ultimate aim is not to protest individual executions, but to abolish them.
“We have the power, we have the ability, we lack the commitment,” Egitto said. “If you’re not 95, you need to get off your tochus.”
The workshop was not designed as a seminar exploring all sides of the death penalty. A show of hands after lunch showed that no one in the assembly was pro-death penalty, though a few people—possibly including death penalty supporters—had left by then. Florida is not lacking for death penalty advocates: the state is strongly behind its capital punishment machinery, and prosecutors routinely eliminate prospective jurors, in capital cases, who show inclinations against the death penalty, thus more easily ensuring that convictions lead to death row.
“I’m inspired by you all accepting me and Herman,” Penalver said near the end of the day, when the group had assembled for a final prayer and blessing.
“Unfortunately, there will be another bus going on April 10,” Jackie Morelewicz, who organized the workshop, said at the day’s conclusion, inviting people to join that vigil along with Egitto. The bus will leave the Winn Dixie shopping plaza on State Road 100, in Palm Coast, at 3 p.m. that day. Eugene Mann, 49 convicted for the murder of 10-year-old Elisa Nelson in November 1980 in Pinellas County, is scheduled to be killed at 6 p.m. that day, after 32 years on death row.
Whenever Elliott and Egitto lead vigils in Starke, they ring a loud, sonorous bell, at 6 p.m., marking the death of the inmate. Elliott had brought the bell to the Flagler Beach workshop Saturday. It’s a heavy, squat, welding cylinder salvaged from a junkyard and turned into a bell that, in Elliott’s words, “sounds like a Japanese temple bell.”
Ending the day, Elliott rang it outside the meeting hall, along with several others, who boomed in turn words like “Not in my name” and “Not in God’s name,” as Lindsay and Penalver held the bell that could have one day rung for them.
Listen to the Ringing of the Death Penalty Bell
As Elliot Explains Its Purpose, and Lindsay and Penalver Held It Up[media id=316 width=500 height=400]
Oh how sad…Those poor “innocent” murderers !!! Yep, I sure do feel sorry for them. Imagine having to sit in prison and wait 18 years then get injected with “kill juice”. I just can’t believe this country still is this barbaric.
Oh the saddness…….. And to think it only cost the taxpayer $90,000.00 a year to keep one death row inmate housed, feed, clothed, medical, dental, etc..etc..etc !!!!
Samuel Smith says
So what you’re saying is that you are totally ok with executing one innocent person to every three guilty ones if it saves the state a few dollars?
johnny taxpayer says
Your statement is simply false. There is no evidence that any of the 74 executions carried out in Florida since 1979 were of innocent inmates. The article’s use of the following statement is somewhat misleading, “For every three executions in the state, one individual is exonerated from Florida’s death row”. That is simply dividing the number of executions (74) by the number of exonerations (24) it does not mean that 1/3 of the inmates actually executed was innocent, in fact a quick search of the innocence project, the Innocence Database, and other sources shows no evidence that ANY of the 74 inmates executed in Florida 1979 have ever been exonerated.
Paul Skog says
You are missing the point. The problem is that the politicians have created a system in which they can not allow evidence that exonerates a suspected murderer to sway there opinion because they will look like they are not tough on crime. Then people like you will call them week and vote them out of office. Now you have a system that does not care if you are guilty or innocent; the conviction, any conviction, is what matters.
What percentage of innocent people being executed are you comfortable with? Would you feel differently if you or one of your family members was part of that percentage? It shouldn’t. Innocent people are being killed because the system does not work. If the system could be proven to work it may be a different story, but we all know that it doesn’t work.
I wouldn’t trust an ambitious politician to fold my laundry and you are comfortable with them making life and death decisions that have a huge affect on their political ambitions. That is either stupid or evil.
I seriously hate where my tax dollars are going.
If convicted of murder and sentenced to death, the sentence should be carried out in 6 to 12 months.. When animals hurt people they are put down right away. Murderers are animals and be treated the same way. Why wait 25 to 30 years to carry out the verdict??
Nancy N. says
If the death penalty was carried out in 6-12 months, both of these men featured in this article would be dead, killed in your name and mine by the state for crimes THEY DID NOT COMMIT. So you’re fine with the state committing the murder of innocent people so that you can get your idea of retribution a bit faster? What retribution would you suggest would be owed for the families of innocent people like Mr. Penalver and Mr. Lindsay who the state would be murdering? Who should be executed for that? Because in your world apparently the only solution for murder is to kill more people.
……Barbaric??? What about the majority of the ones on death row that actually DO commit heinous crimes? They should be allowed to live while their victims died a horrible, unforgiving death? Give me a break. Liberals like you and your backward apologetic belief systems make me want to puke.
How many wrongful convictions are there? Its not liberal thinking or conservative thinking to believe that an innocent person should not have to pay for a crime they did not commit. So until you can assure us that all persons put to death were in fact guilty just keep puking!!!
Paul Skog says
So you are comfortable with killing all of the people on death row as long as the majority of them are guilty? That is, by definition, barbaric.
First of all, I don’t think any prison is “club med” and anyone who is so ignorant to think so should take a week and place themselves there voluntarily and then tell us all about your “club med” experience.
The reality is that it’s easy for us to live in this world that these punishments are justified but the truth is that most death penalties are not equal sentences for all. In most cases it is those are are can’t afford the resources to defend themselves. Read “Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer” (http://www.amazon.com/Angel-Death-Row-Penalty-Defense/dp/B008SM0WQO). Does the years of severely-abused Mother who one day snaps deserve the death penalty? How many cases have we found people convicted that were later found innocent?
Most importantly . . . is this punishment really addressing the issue of violence in our communities? The answer is “no” because violence keeps growing.
Nancy N. says
1) The vast majority of FL DOC inmates do not live in air conditioned units. The specific inmates that we are discussing here – death row – who are housed at Union CI and FSP, most definitely do not have a/c.
2) Where the HECK did you get the idea that the state is paying for sex change operations? They barely pay for routine medical care needed to save an inmate’s life.In fact, they regularly get sued for refusing to pay for even that.
3) The available “free school” at FL DOC consists only of GED tutoring, most of which is provided by other inmates. Inmate tutors are supervised and coordinated by a single staff member at each institution. There is also some job training in trades available to certain inmates who are within a certain time frame from release. Inmates who are trained are then used to perform work on DOC facilities. The two strongest predictors of whether an inmate will return to prison after their release are their education and job skills, and their level of family support. Investing in education and job training is investing in turning inmates into productive members of society.
4) TV’s in FL DOC housing units are donated and there is no cable TV available – it is antennae only.
5) A shower does not equal luxury, especially when it is ice cold, has no privacy, and is of questionable quality water. Basic hygiene is simply a necessity to stop the spread of disease which could be harmful to inmates – costing the state money for medical treatment – and also a threat to staff that the inmates come in contact with.
You seem to have little idea who the inmates in Florida prisons really are. Allow me to educate you: 90% of inmates will someday be released – meaning they need to be prepared to live better lives than what got them to prison in the first place. or we will be paying to incarcerate them again. 75% of inmates are in prison either directly or indirectly as a result of substance abuse. Only approximately half of FL DOC inmates were convicted of violent crimes.
With sentencing guidelines increasing in today’s political climate, today we have people literally getting life sentences for committing burglaries. People are getting sentenced to dozens of years for offenses that twenty years ago they might not even have gotten time for at all. The result is that the prison population is not the same as it has historically been. You don’t have to be the worst of the worst of society’s violent offenders to end up there anymore.
You have my permission to go ahead and execute Mr. Mann in my name for the killing of a 10 year old child,he won’t do it again that is certain.
Nancy N. says
Has Mr. Mann been murdering children while he’s been in prison that I wasn’t aware of? Wow, the liberal media really is in on this anti-death penalty conspiracy if they’ve been covering that up….
gator lover says
more pity for the poor murderers and none for the victims. what’s new?
Samuel Smith says
I’m pretty sure that spending 18 years on death row for a crime you didn’t commit puts you firmly in the “victim” category.
Clear Water says
He was not on death row for 18 years …. he was on death row for 6 years. He was found “not guilty” at his third trial.
Do you really believe that prisons are Club Med? Get real!
We are in great company with other countries that have the death penalty. China, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.
Nancy N. says
And of course, don’t forget – North Korea!
johnny taxpayer says
Since the death penalty cannot be implemented quickly enough to serve as a deterrent to crime, without risking a monumental injustice of executing an innocent person, I see no point in continuing it. There is minimal upside, and as has been pointed out in this article and the comment section, too much downside.
Clear Water says
Not sure how being found “not guilty” at trial equates to being exonerated????
South FLA says
What about the ones who have been found “not guilty” that are guilty and have merely gotten away with it? Case and point – one of these two men? What about the murderers who got away with it all together? Where is the justice for the victims families? You – nor me – know the truth about what happened unless they have admitted it. Those who have admitted guilt and show remose and sorrow should be admired for giving everyone closure, serenity and peace, and should be given life. Be that as it may, ONLY GOD will be there to judge us on our judgement day. Mr. Penalver as well as Mr. Lindsay know the truth about their cases. Those jury members did not know them nor will ever know ALL of the truth about them ever! 18 years later they are thrown a case that has changed so extremely by way of witnesses, evidence and a stranger who sits in front of them now? They are supposed to determine what happened 20 years prior or even just many years prior? I believe there are injustices on both sides. I do not believe there is innocence in all “exonerated” death row inmates. I believe they have been found innocent on circumstance and for this I have no sympathy. If they did the crimes they WERE ONCE convicted of – they have to look in the mirror and know they took the life of someones, son, daughter, sister, brother, mother, father – friend – and live with that. If they are capable of murder, how can we ever expect them to be capable of remorse, sorrow, truth and especially justice. A front like protesting the death penalty is almost necessary. I believe it is 50/50 and can be argued either way. Their is always a pro and con with every issue and there is never an absolute.
To those who are guilty and have manipulated the system enough to get away with it – shame on you. What if it were your child murdered or your wife or mother? The truth is there and should be admitted – now! This is the ONLY way you will TRULY be free and accepted by all and forgiven. GOD as YOUR witness will judge you on your day.
To those who are innocent and have been found guilty of a crime you did not commit, GOD is also YOUR witness and you absolutely will reap the benefits of eternal life on YOUR judgement day.