On Monday, the Florida Supreme Court issued a public admonishment to Judge Elizabeth Scherer, the presiding judge over the penalty trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz, citing perceived preferential treatment towards the prosecution.
The top state court’s unanimous verdict echoed sentiments from the Judicial Qualifications Commission. This body determined that her conduct was unsuitable for her position.
Scherer faced criticism for her actions post-trial, where she left her judicial seat to embrace several prosecution team members following her decision to sentence 24-year-old Cruz to life imprisonment.
Cruz, otherwise known as the Parkland Shooter, committed mass murder in 2018 when he gun downed several students at Parkland Highschool in Florida. It was one of the most heinous mass shootings in years and is a highly well-known and note-worthy case. If there was any time to use the death penalty, by public opinion, it seemed that Cruz would be eligible.
Rather than receiving the death penalty Cruz received life without parole. Cruz was charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. However, Cruz would have been the youngest and most destructive inmate on death row in Florida’s history if he had been sentenced to death. So why did someone who did so much damage escape death row?
Cruz’s team, during the trial, explained that Cruz’s birth mother was an addict and an alcoholic and that Cruz was born with a “corrupt brain.” During the trial, his team claimed he was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and antisocial personality disorder. Teachers and other people who knew Cruz explained that he had some special needs and was often a troubled child with violent tendencies.
Nonetheless, the decision to give Cruz life in prison instead of the death penalty sparked significant controversy and criticism of the death penalty in Florida.
Florida and the Death Penalty: A Controversial Legacy
Since the 1800s, Florida’s affair with capital punishment has been a subject of intense debate. Initially using public hangings as execution, the state transitioned to the electric chair in 1923, infamously known as “Old Sparky.” Numerous botched executions, including those of Allen Lee Davis and Jesse Tafero, raised questions about its humanity. Their gruesome ends led to Attorney General Bob Butterworth’s remark warning potential murderers of Florida’s flawed chair.
As the reputation of the electric chair deteriorated, lethal injection emerged as a preferred method. While inmates technically have the choice of the electric chair, the last request for it, made by Wayne Doty in 2015, remains unfulfilled.
Two Contrasting Cases: Cruz vs. Thomas
The case of the Parkland Shooter reignited the death penalty debate. Responsible for one of the deadliest school shootings, many expected Cruz to receive the death penalty. Instead, he got life imprisonment. His defense emphasized his troubled childhood, marred by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and antisocial personality disorder, painting a picture of a troubled mind.
Conversely, Andre Thomas from Texas was sentenced to death despite displaying signs of severe mental disorders. His ghastly crime of murdering his family is overshadowed by his evident struggles with schizophrenia and psychosis. Thomas’s repeated self-harm acts and suicide attempts underscore his unstable mental state. Yet, while Cruz’s defense succeeded with a narrative of mental health issues, Thomas wasn’t as fortunate. These cases hint at potential racial biases in death penalty decisions, considering Cruz is white and Thomas is black.
New Supreme Court Ruling
In 2012 the Supreme Court ruled in Martinez V Ryan that prisoners can access a new trial in federal court where they have had ineffective legal counsel. On Monday, May 23rd, the Supreme Court barred federal courts from hearing new evidence not previously presented in a state court due to the defendant’s ineffective legal representation. This means there is little lifeline left for those wrongly convicted or with ineffective counsel.
Many Americans cannot afford their own legal counsel, so they are at the mercy of court-appointed representation. If you are in a trial, you will want the best representation. If you are limited financially, you have few options. It is also worth noting that some public defenders have not received a raise in over 30 years in some states, such as Arizona. As many Americans are feeling the burden of inflation without pay raises, we would be naive to assume that the legal field isn’t feeling the heat, which could lead to resentment and poor performance.
This may directly impact the individuals they are representing. Whether an individual is acquitted or found guilty, counsel still gets paid. Not only that, but the Supreme Court expressed that allowing federal retrial is too much of a financial burden. They claim that allowing new federal trials would override the “finality” of state-court judgments.
Since 1972 over 15,000 Americans have been executed, and 187 were later exonerated. Approximately 11% of all people executed in America are estimated to be innocent. Unfortunately, there will likely always be a percentage of error, but the margin is disturbingly large. In cases of death sentences, getting those judgments overturned has been very difficult. The new ruling will make it much more complex, if not impossible, to overturn a verdict. Often the goal isn’t to exonerate the prisoner but to lessen the sentencing. With less wiggle room, we can expect to see an increase in executions from this ruling.
The Sexual Assault Evidence Kit, or “the rape kit,” used in America, has helped exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA evidence withheld in their initial trial. The rape kit was first released in 1970 by Police Sergeant Louis Vitullo. It is a standardized tool to gather forensic evidence after sexual assaults. However, the use of DNA processing was not nearly as thorough or accurate as it is now.
Several prisoners, such as Florida native Robert Duboise, have been exonerated through processing old and thought to be destroyed DNA. Duboise served 37 years in prison before being proven innocent by processing DNA with new technology and presenting new evidence.
With being able to present new evidence, situations such as the Duboise case would have had the opportunity to lead to dismissal ultimately. The Supreme Court claims prisoners are flooding the judicial system with inaccurate testimony and faulty leads, causing systemic issues and strain on employees. Is asking our justice system to comb through these findings effectively too much? Given all the information on the percentages of wrongly convicted criminals, it seems essential in our system and should remain intact.
It seems it’s too much to ask to ensure inmates on death row should rightfully be there, and it seems the Florida death penalty system failed Parkland residents by not giving Cruz the death penalty. The whole system is one gigantic inconsistent flaw.
Challenges in Implementing the Death Penalty
The inconsistency in Florida’s application of the death penalty is beyond concerning. The very essence of the U.S. judicial system rests on fairness and prompt justice. If the system is neither, its existence becomes questionable. The difficulty lies in balancing justice for victims and ensuring a fair, humane system for all.
The 8th Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment, has often been central to the death penalty debate. While the American Bar Association considers the electric chair and executing individuals with intellectual disabilities or those under 18 as cruel and unusual, the very act of capital punishment hasn’t been deemed unconstitutional.
A Moral Dilemma
Public opinion on the death penalty is diverse and deeply personal. Some see it as an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes, while others view it as immoral. The question remains: if taking a life is considered wrong, how does society justify the death penalty?
In reimagining Florida’s relationship with capital punishment, this balance between justice, morality, and constitutionality remains at the heart of the debate.
The Role of Mental Health
A recurrent theme in recent death penalty discussions centers on mental health. The cases of Cruz and Thomas’s stark differences in outcome despite evident mental health issues emphasize the need for a more compassionate, informed approach. How does one determine the line between accountability and the mitigating effects of mental disorders? Recognizing the role of mental health in crime does not absolve individuals of responsibility. However, it does call into question the appropriateness of the ultimate punishment when psychological factors are at play.
Racial disparities in the implementation of the death penalty further muddy its moral waters. The seemingly preferential treatment offered to Cruz compared to Thomas sparks questions about ingrained biases within the justice system. While each case is unique, the perception of racial bias diminishes public trust in the system’s equity and objectivity.
Life on Death Row
There’s also the psychological toll of life on death row to consider. As paradoxical as it sounds, some inmates prefer a swift execution to the agonizing wait and the looming shadow of death. This presents another moral conundrum: is prolonged uncertainty a cruelty in itself?
Victims and Their Families
While much focus lies on the inmates, the feelings and desires of victims’ families cannot be overlooked. For some, the execution of a perpetrator provides closure. For others, it perpetuates a cycle of violence and loss. Their voices add another layer of complexity to the conversation.
Shifting Global Perspectives
Many countries are removing the death penalty, citing it as inhumane and outdated. As the global community evolves in its stance, the United States, and specifically states like Florida, must reckon with their positions in this international context.
Florida Death Penalty Contradictions
Florida’s history with the death penalty is fraught with contradictions, controversies, and moral challenges. Did Judge Elizabeth Scherer have bias during the case? Was there racial bias when it came to Cruz’s sentencing?
As the state grapples with its future stance, it must weigh the tangible and intangible costs against the purported benefits. In its truest form, justice must be equitable, compassionate, and devoid of biases, ensuring that society’s most severe punishment is met with the utmost care and scrutiny.