Floridas History of the Death Penalty
Florida has a long history of capital punishment that began in the 1800s with public hangings. In 1923, Florida abolished hangings and decided that the electric chair was the most appropriate and humane way to execute. Florida’s electric chair has notoriously malfunctioned and received the nickname “old sparky”. Many executed in Florida before 1999 received death from old sparky that didn’t allow for easy executions.
Allen Lee Davis and Jesse Tafero were among some of the most noteworthy to create controversy due to malfunctions from the electric chair. Tafero experienced flames from not only his head but other body parts as well and Davis experienced bleeding and burns to several body parts. After Davis was executed Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth was quoted saying; “People who wish to commit murder, they’d better not do it in the state of Florida because we may have a problem with the electric chair.”
It made a strong point, and it was completely true. The electric chair especially in Florida has not proven to be reliable. Many argue that it is not a humane way to execute people. From these issues, lethal injection became the favorable way to execute prisoners on death row. To this day the electric chair is still an option should an inmate request it. Although legally this is true, the last time an inmate requested the electric chair it was not carried out. Wayne Doty requested in 2015 that his execution be carried out by an electric chair. Doty is currently still on death row and his request has yet to be carried out.
Nikolas 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 henious mass shootings in years and is an extremely 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, if he was sentenced to death Cruz would have been the youngest and most destructive inmate on death row in Florida’s history. 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 that 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.
Although this is not a case-specific to Florida it does come from texas and is valuable to compare to Cruz’s. Cruz received his life sentence because Cruz’s legal team explained that Cruz had major mental health issues that made him commit mass murder. Only one juror believed that Cruz had these severe issues and should be spared the death penalty. In Florida when deciding on the death penalty the decision does mean to be unanimous. Meaning every single juror needs to agree upon the death penalty.
Andre Thomas murdered his wife and three children in 2004. It was a particularly gruesome murder as Thomas cut open the chest of all of his victims and removed the hearts of two of his children. Thomas clearly was and still is suffering from grave emotional and mental health disorders that impacted his actions and his ability to comprehend. His entire mental health history has been well documented and presented to the court. It is blatantly evident that Thomas had severe struggles that put him not only a danger to himself but a danger to others.
Thomas has Schizophrenia and had been hearing voices most of his life as well as psychosis. The Texas Tribune reports that Thomas first attempted to take his own life at 10 years old because voices instructed him to do so. Thomas’s lawyer Maurie Levin was quoted saying “To pursue his execution would be nothing but an ugly spectacle and would not make Texans safer”. Levin also explained that Thomas attempted to take his life twice in the three weeks BEFORE the murders where he was under the doctor’s care both times. To say this is yet another failure of our medical/mental health system would be an understatement.
Five days after Thomas was in custody after turning himself in he gouged his right eye out. On a separate occasion, he also gouged out his left. Anyone arguing that Thomas was mentally competent to stand trial is just plain wrong. It is also a clear violation of his constitutional rights. The American Bar Association specially and clearly states that no one should be put to death if they face mental disturbance. It is an automatic and immediate disqualifier. The fact that Thomas was subjected to a trial and sentenced to death shows there is absolutely something else going on in the case.
Many have come forward outraged for years and especially after the ruling was determined that the reason Cruz would get life is that he had mental health issues. This is not to say that Cruz didn’t have mental health issues and one person having more severe issues does not negate the fact that mental health issues exist. However, It is clear that these two cases were not treated equally as they should have. Thomas committed a heinous act murdering his family of four but Cruz killed three times the amount of people. There are many cases you can compare, and just comparing these two makes you wonder why Cruz would have received life when Thomas was sentenced to death. The main reason that people are speculating is that Cruz was a white man whereas Thomas is a black man. Many believe that death penalty cases hold a lot of racial bias.
New Supreme Court Ruling
In 2012 the Supreme Court ruled in Martinez V Ryan that prisoners can have access to a new trial in federal court in situations where they have had ineffective legal counsel. On Monday, May 23rd, the Supreme Court which is now split into a 6-3 conservative majority, barred federal courts from hearing new evidence that as a result of the defendant’s ineffective legal representation was not previously presented in a state court. This means that there is little lifeline left for those who are wrongly convicted or had ineffective counsel.
Now with the new ruling, it will make it that much harder if not impossible to overturn a ruling. 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.
It actually costs Florida more to uphold the ruling of the death penalty than life in prison. The Palm Beach Post estimates that it costs Florida 51 million more dollars a year to execute death row sentences that the ladder of life in prison. This is an astounding number. On average, someone on death row will wait for 19.6 years before being executed. In that time not only do you have to take into account housing costs, and staff costs, but also the cost of appeals.
One of the scariest things about the death penalty is sentencing someone to death that was actually innocent. Since 1972 over 15,000 Americans have been executed and 190 of them were later exonerated. It is estimated that approximately 11% of all people executed in America have been innocent. Should there be ANY margin of error when it comes to the death penalty? Some jobs just don’t have the wiggle room to get something wrong and deciding on the death penalty is one of those situations. In cases of death sentences, it has been very difficult to get those judgments overturned. Meaning, once you get the death penalty that sentence will likely never change so if someone is falsely convicted they are not likely to find the justice they deserve.
If states are implementing the death penalty they need to ensure that that person was sentenced correctly. Casey Anthony just released a new tell-all documentary where she explains not only was she innocent but that her father murdered her child Caylee. Anthony’s case was a huge case across the country that caused outrage. Anthony was facing the death penalty at her trial. Whether you believe her or not it is evident that not only the jury but the people are completely polarized. Anthony was found not guilty and many believe she is guilty. If she was found guilty I would be curious to know what her end sentence would have been. Many cases are simply that convoluted. You can see in this example how errors can occur.
Issues with Floridas Death Penalty
One issue with the death penalty is that some inmates that are on death row would prefer to be put to death versus sitting on death row or getting life in prison. The punishment given should fit the crime but what happens when you give the criminal the punishment they desire? Is it really punishment at that point? Some believe that putting someone to death essentially exonerates them from their pain and suffering by ending their life.
The example of what occurred to Cruz shines a light on the issues with Florida’s death penalty. I think it is safe to say that most people that are committing murder and other heinous crimes including crimes against children and sexual assault have some issues with mental health. If there was any time to utilize the death penalty Cruz would be a prime example. If Florida is not going to be consistent it should not have the death penalty. The United States judicial system is supposedly built on fairness and swift, accurate justice. If a system that we have in place cannot be fair or accurate we should not have it at all.
Justice for the Victims
The difficulty with eradicating the death penalty as a whole is that it may leave those victims and families without justice. This is all contingent on the victim’s family’s belief systems and in cases where the crime is so severe, we want to ensure that justice is being given. Being that America’s, specifically Florida’s capital punishment has been notoriously inconsistent even having the death penalty does not guarantee that the victim’s families are receiving the justice they deserve. This could lead to harming the families even further.
The 8th Amendment
The 8th Amendment states: excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. Some have argued that capital punishment is inherently unconstitutional because it is cruel and unusual punishment. The American Bar Association explains like almost all of the United States constitution it was meant for a different time period. Meaning that cruel and unusual means punishments such as torture. Torture was an extremely common punishment in the United States before the 19th century.
The Bar Association also explains that it is cruel and usual to sentence someone to death with “mental retardation” and sentence people under the age of 18 to the death penalty. The electric chair or Florida’s “old sparky” can and has been deemed cruel and unusual but the actual act of the death penalty is not a constitutional violation.
The morality of the Death Penalty
Everyone decides their opinion on the death penalty with their own moral and value system. Many simply believe that the death penalty is not morally correct. If killing a person is immoral except in self-defense or defense of another, what makes it moral simply because we do it collectively as a societal judgment?