Thursday, 21 December 2006

Our view: Executing justice

Our view: Executing justice

Use moratorium to start overhaul of flawed Florida death penalty system

Gov. Jeb Bush was correct to impose a hold on death warrants in Florida following the gruesome execution of Angel Diaz on Dec. 13.

The moratorium is long past due.

Convicted murderer Diaz was put to death by lethal injection, taking 34 minutes to die. Executions normally take half that time, and inmates are usually unconscious within five minutes.

Second injections of two chemicals were required to kill Diaz, and he showed signs of experiencing pain, according to witnesses.

That likely violates the constitutional mandate against cruel and unusual punishment, and is more than adequate reason for the commission Bush has created to see if methods used to kill Diaz meet court standards.

A federal judge's ruling that California must change its lethal-injection procedures because the level of pain they cause is unconstitutional only makes that review more apropos.

But it would be senseless to look at the Diaz' case -- and questions about sound or unsound execution methods -- in isolation, when the death penalty process in Florida is completely broken.

And the stay on executions could end as early as March if Bush's commission issues a report that just skims the surface of what's wrong.

An American Bar Association study conducted by a team of leading state prosecutors, attorneys and judges that was released in September cited more than a dozen glaring flaws:

Among them:

  • Racial inequities. In Florida's courts, those killing white victims are more likely to get the death penalty and be executed than those who kill non-whites.

  • Florida unjustly imposes the death penalty on persons with severe mental disabilities.

  • Florida pays death penalty lawyers so poorly that defendants are unlikely to receive competent counsel.

    The state also provides almost no oversight of death penalty appeals cases, and allows under-qualified lawyers to get on the registry to represent inmates, precipitating wrongful convictions that only do further damage to public safety.

  • Florida has sent more innocent people to death row than any other state, many more even than other populous states such as Texas and California, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Some 22 death row inmates have been exonerated in Florida since 1973, including one who died behind bars.

    Most recently, John Ballard, sentenced to death in 2003, was exonerated when the Florida Supreme Court overturned his conviction in February, citing insufficient evidence. That record is why many criminal justice organizations have repeatedly and rightly called for a death penalty moratorium in the Sunshine State.

    We agree, and also believe that while the death penalty has a place in the justice system, it should be used within narrow limits and only for very heinous crimes, such as police and serial killings, and child slayings.

    Bush, who signed death warrants for 21 inmates during his eight years in office, has ignored the widespread calls for reform.

    When he takes office in January, Gov.-elect Charlie Crist should extend the Diaz moratorium as long as it takes for a top-to-bottom review and overhaul of the death penalty system.

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