"Capital punishment: them without the capital get the punishment." Those were the last words of John Spenkelink, executed 30 years ago today in Starke for murdering traveling companion Joseph Szymankiewicz. Spenkelink was the first person executed in the state, the second nationwide after a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling reinstated capital punishment.
As a former Florida prison warden who carried out three electric-chair executions and shadowed five lethal-injection executions in Texas, I know that Spenkelink was correct: Most death-row inmates cannot afford experienced attorneys.
Once, I firmly supported capital punishment. Part of my job was to help strap prisoners into the electric chair, and signal the hooded executioner to administer the current. But each execution lessened my support. In Texas, I thought the more "civilized" executions by lethal injection would remove my repugnance. They didn't.
My change of heart was gradual and painful. At night I would awaken to visions of executed inmates sitting on the edge of my bed.
I began studying the reasons behind executions over the centuries. I was appalled to think I had been part of this ceremonial barbaric act committed to appease chest-pounding politicians attempting to appear "tough on crime."
An experience I had this January underscored my transformation. I was a speaker at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's conference in Pennsylvania. In the conference venue one day, a man turned to me as I approached. Shockingly, the last time I saw this gentle soul was inside a Florida death-row prison cell; I was his warden.
We embraced. It was Juan Melendez, an exoneree who had spent 17 years, eight months and one day on death row for a crime he didn't commit. As his warden, I could have taken this innocent man from his cell into the death chamber.
Melendez's case is typical for many on death row. Substandard representation and prosecutorial misconduct are among the reasons for exonerations over the years — 133 men and women since 1973. Three men were exonerated this year. Florida leads the nation in exonerations since 1973 with 22.
Race is a factor in death sentences. According to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund report "Death Row U.S.A. Winter 2009," 41.58 percent of death-row inmates nationally are African-American, although they comprise 13.5 percent of the U.S. The percentage is similar in Florida.
Since the Spenkelink execution, research revealed how capital punishment drains states' financial resources that could otherwise fund better law enforcement, crime-prevention programs, counseling and other support for murder victims' families, and reinvestigations of unsolved homicides. The cost issue figured prominently in several states' repeal bills this year, including New Mexico's, which abolished capital punishment in March. Florida executed 67 death-row inmates between 1976 and 2008 at approximately $24 million per execution.
In 30 years, Americans began realizing that capital punishment doesn't deter homicides. Florida, with 402 death-row inmates — the second-largest death-row-inmate population nationally after California's — has one of the highest murder rates nationally. The rate is 6.6 per 100,000 people, more than the average national murder rate of 5.5 people per capita and higher than the murder rate in states without the death penalty, 3.1 people per capita.
The lesson that I, and all of us, should learn post-Spenkelink is that capital punishment does not ensure public safety, and has no safeguards against wrongful executions. The 35 death-penalty states, Florida included, should abolish it, replace it with life without parole, and apply the savings where they would do the most good — helping homicide victims' survivors and funding effective law enforcement that protects our communities.
By Ron McAndrew, who spent 25 years in Florida corrections before retiring, working his way up from an entry-level corrections officer to a warden in the Florida State Penitentiary. He also served as the interim director of the Orange County jail in Orlando.
Published in the Orlando Sentinel on May 24, 2009