Op-Ed published in Florida Today, March 31, 2019.
Marshall Frank, Community columnist
Friends and readers generally tag yours truly as a conservative, though I do view some issues with a liberal lean. Capital punishment is one of those issues.
I’m no bleeding heart. During my 30 years with Miami-Dade Police, 16 working homicides, I was witness to hundreds of premeditated killings, gore, deadly riots and inhumanity of people killing other people. For those who plot and carry out grisly murders, I believe they should receive the harshest of punishments. But not death.
Who decided death to be harsh? Is it harsh when an inmate pleads for a rapid end of life, as did Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing? Is it harsh when we condemn our pets to die by a needle because it’s “humane?” Is eternal sleep a punishment?
The new governor of California recently made news by banning executions for all its 737 death row inmates. In fact, California has not executed an inmate in 13 years.
There are many reasons to halt executions. The top of the list is the fear and probability that even one innocent human being may be, or has been, executed. That probability is simply too high. We can look to our own justice system in Florida and find many cases where truly innocent persons were convicted of crimes they did not commit, such as William Dillon and Wilton Dedge, both featured in FLORIDA TODAY’s podcast Murder on the Space Coast. There are others whose guilt is very dubious, as with another subject of the podcast, Gary Bennett, now in his 35th year in prison.
These cases are the ones we know about in Brevard County. What about the rest of the country? The aforementioned men did not get the death penalty, though they wrongfully spent more than two and three decades in prison.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there have been 20 death row inmates released since 1992, based at least in part on DNA evidence showing them to be innocent. DNA material only appears in a fraction of violent crimes. Murder cases do not always yield such evidence.
The only guarantee that innocent people will never be executed is to abolish capital punishment. That’s the only guarantee.
A 2014 study by the National Academy of Sciences reports that at least 4 percent of death row convicts are actually innocent. What are we waiting for?
There are other reasons to abolish capital punishment, such as:
• Costs: Numerous studies have been conducted that clearly show that maintaining the death penalty consumes at least double, or triple, the cost of imposing life sentences.
• No deterrent: More studies have determined that the death penalty does not deter violent crime.
• Death row inmates in Florida are confined to solitary confinement in a concrete and steel cell, 24 hours a day, with no air conditioning and no social interaction. Gary Alvord, 66, died of natural causes on death row, where he spent almost 40 years. Many inmates spend more than three decades in isolation.
• Economic inequities: The rich get the best lawyers. The poor get the worst lawyers.
• Barbarism: The U.S. has the seventh-highest number of executions in the world, among such company as Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan.
• Eighteen states have banned the death penalty. Of 32 states still on the books, only five have been active in carrying out executions, including Florida.
• Execution by injection is not punishment: The real punishment is suffering death row for 20 to 40 years.
• People change: Often, especially after decades in isolation, we are no longer executing the same person who committed the crime. Napoleon Beazley, a 17-year-old Texas boy, robbed and shot a man for his car. At his execution in May of 2002, Beazley spoke his final words:
“The act I committed to put me here was not just heinous, it was senseless,” he said. “But the person that committed that act is no longer here — I am.”
Capital punishment has one redeeming aspect. It’s often used as a wedge to secure guilty pleas in order to avert trials.
That’s a poor reason for maintaining the risk.