There are many ways to make the case for abolishing the death penalty in Florida.
First, consider the extra $50 million that the state spends each year on death-penalty prosecutions and appeals.
Then look at the deep flaws that the American Bar Association found with Florida's system of capital punishment -- and recognize that those legal inequities haven't been addressed in the three years since the Bar released its review.
Finally, consider the haunting probability that the state has executed innocent people -- mistakes it can never correct.
The last argument is the one that torments former Florida State Penitentiary warden Ron McAndrew, whose duties included participating in the executions (by electrocution) of three men during his tenure at the prison. In an opinion piece written for the Orlando Sentinel's online edition, McAndrew describes a gradual change of heart that culminated in a face-to-face meeting with Juan Melendez, a man who spent more than 17 years on Florida's death row before being proved innocent of a 1983 murder.
McAndrew isn't the only one to express doubts. And Melendez is not the only man to walk free: Florida leads the nation in death-row exonerations. Since 1973, 22 death-row inmates have had their convictions definitively overturned. Two other cases bring Florida's "official" roster of wrongful death sentences to 24: Frank Lee Smith was proven innocent by DNA but died in prison before his conviction could be overturned, and Sonia Jacobs walked free from death row after the case against her fell apart -- though she accepted a plea bargain, her murder conviction was dismissed.
Death-penalty proponents claim the exonerations as proof that "the system works." In actuality, they prove the opposite. Many of Florida's exonerations were only obtained after lengthy defense fights to obtain and test DNA evidence that proved someone else was guilty of a particular crime. But the first DNA exoneration didn't happen until 1993 -- and even after the technology became widely accepted, prosecutors fought hard (and often successfully) to keep DNA evidence from being tested in a contested conviction. In many cases of disputed convictions, DNA evidence either didn't exist, or has disappeared or degraded. And the system is currently set up to protect convictions, requiring extraordinary proof to even request DNA tests. It's likely that Florida has executed several innocent people, including Jesse Tafero, Jacobs' co-defendant, who was convicted on the same unreliable evidence used in her initial conviction.
The American Bar Association called for the state to create a commission to investigate potential wrongful convictions, and a separate commission that would study how Florida came to lead the nation in death-row mistakes. Thus far, lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist have ignored both recommendations, along with other common-sense suggestions that would force more justice on the state's death-penalty machine.
But there's one argument they might not be able to shove aside so easily. The state could save a considerable sum -- a reliable estimate suggests it's more than $50 million a year -- by converting every sentence on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
That financial argument is swaying states away from capital punishment in a way that the possibility of miscarried justice never did. New York, New Mexico and New Jersey have rejected the death penalty in the last two years, citing costs. Last week, the Connecticut legislature did the same, though that bill faces a threatened veto. Maryland, Illinois and Kansas have all considered legislation that would eliminate or greatly reduce death-penalty prosecutions.
If Florida leaders won't kill the death penalty because it is wrong, they should accept that it costs too much. If they weigh that cost with a dollar sign -- rather than the moral burden of taking lives through a flawed, unjust and fallible system -- it should still tip the balance in favor of death-penalty abolition.
An editorial published by the Daytona Beach News Journal on May 28, 2009