Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

Is the cost of Florida’s death penalty too high?

Florida's death row
The death penalty draws deeply on time, financial resources, surviving families’ emotions

Thirteen years later, Bill Belanger is waiting for the ultimate punishment against two of the men who burst into a house and stabbed and bludgeoned his daughter, Erin, and five other young people to death in the Deltona mass murder.

The four death sentences each against two of the killers, Troy Victorino and Jerone Hunter, were struck down last year in the wake of the legal turmoil over Florida’s death penalty which sprung numerous convicts from death row.

“I’ve always felt that there are crimes so heinous, so depraved it just calls for the person to be executed,” Belanger said in a phone interview.

On the other hand, Felicita Nieves Perez, whose daughter and two grandchildren were killed by Luis Toledo is fine with him spending the rest of his life in prison. That’s the penalty Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano will impose at Toledo’s sentencing Friday after a jury could not unanimously agree to recommend the death penalty.

“If you asked me, I’m better with life in prison with no parole at all,” Nieves Perez said. “This way, it’s for sure he will not hurt anybody out there. The whole process was very stressful, thinking that he could get away with it. It could happen.”

Critics of the death penalty say it is an arbitrary, costly and cruel punishment. They argue the process is cruel not only for the person being executed but for the murder victims’ families who wait for years as cumbersome cases wind their way to trial and appeals and never actually see the murderer executed.

Others say the death penalty is the law and should be applied when appropriate.

One of the critics is 7th Circuit Public Defender James Purdy, who said that based on the number of people on death row it would take nearly 150 years to execute them all, meaning many victims’ families will never see the death sentences carried out.

“What you have is a problem where they never have closure,” Purdy said of victims families. “If it were a life sentence where they knew that person was going to die in prison, they could get on with their lives. And that’s the real cruel joke of the death penalty on the victims’ families.”

As of Jan. 12, 350 inmates were on Florida’s death row, down from about 400 before the death-penalty was temporarily halted and sentences overturned.

Purdy applauds the Florida Supreme Court ruling requiring unanimity on jury death recommendations.

“We have had people executed in Florida on a majority vote and to me that’s unconscionable,” Purdy said. “The most severe sentence that you can give someone didn’t require a unanimous jury verdict like everything else in the criminal justice system does.”

Florida's death chamber
Purdy also stressed that some innocent people have been executed across the nation and that’s a horrible mistake that cannot be undone.

Since 1973, 161 people on death row were exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Florida led the way with 27 exonerations since 1973 with Illinois coming in second at 21. Thirty-one states still have the death penalty, according to the center.

Seventh Circuit State Attorney R.J. Larizza said the office works hard to make sure it seeks the death penalty in appropriate cases and that no one that’s innocent is charged with a crime.

“Well, first all, we don’t seek the death penalty for glory. We do it for justice and the bottom line is you have to do the work up front. You have to do your due diligence at the very beginning of these homicide cases,” Larizza said.

Politics and death

Larizza said public opinion or politics have nothing to do with the decision to seek the death penalty.

“We don’t do this,” said Larizza (bringing his right index finger to his mouth as if wetting it and then sticking it up in the air to test the wind direction). Public opinion says we should seek it and so we do,” Larizza said. “We have to be blind. We have to put away the politics when we are doing our job. We have to make decisions on the facts and the law.”

Governor Rick Scott, left, State Attorney Aramis Ayala
One state attorney in Florida tried to do away with the death penalty in her circuit, which covers the Orlando area: Aramis Ayala, who became Florida’s first ever African-American state attorney when she was elected in 2016. Ayala’s views on the death penalty did not come up during her campaign to defeat incumbent Jeff Ashton. But soon after taking office, Ayala made those views clear by announcing she would not seek the death penalty against anyone.

That set off a battle with Gov. Rick Scott who took potential death penalty cases away from her and gave them to State Attorney Brad King. The issue was decided by the Florida Supreme Court which sided with Scott and ruled that Ayala’s blanket refusal to impose the death penalty was a failure to exercise discretion.

When asked whether she thought she could have still won election had she come out against the death penalty, Ayala said she had no way of knowing.

“That’s a hypothetical that I think is almost impossible, because at that point there was never a discussion of it,” she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the process Florida followed to impose the death penalty because it gave too much power to judges and not enough to juries. Later the Florida Supreme Court required that jury recommendations for death be unanimous.

“My biggest concern with the death penalty was the arbitrary nature by which I believed it was being sought,” Ayala said in a phone interview. “I’m supposed to administer justice in a proper way and for me to make a decision on who lives and who dies there needed to be a very clear process.”

She said most people convicted of murder don’t get the death penalty.

“So how do you look at one person and say your family member wasn’t killed in the right way so they are not going to get a death sentence and ’Oh, you know what, yours went through a little more torture so we are going to seek death. The way that it’s set up is unfair to set up this hierarchy,” Ayala said.

The cost of death

The state is paying for Toledo’s defense. The most recent available cost figures are from Nov. 29 and were at $119,000. Of that, the largest expenses were about $20,000 depositions and transcripts; $18,000 for investigative; and $67,000 for doctors. The total costs for Toledo’s trial are still being tallied.

The combined cost for the defense of the four people convicted in the 2004 Deltona mass murder was $1.9 million, according to the Justice Administrative Commission.

Victorino and Hunter were given multiple death sentences in the mass killing. But since none of the jury recommendations were unanimous they were overturned. Another person convicted in the killings, Michael Salas, was sentenced to life in the killings. And a fourth, Robert Cannon, 31, pleaded guilty to avoid a possible death sentence and is serving life.

Killed in the massacre were Erin Belanger, 22; Michelle Nathan, 19; Roberto “Tito” Gonzalez, 28; Jonathan Gleason, 17; Francisco “Flaco” Ayo-Roman, 30; and Anthony Vega, 34.

Troy Victorino’s defense costs the state $652,059; Jerone Hunter’s $796,623; Michael Salas’ $229,235; and Robert Cannon, $232,371, according to the Justice Administration Commission.

The tally for Victorino and Hunter will continue to grow as prosecutors seek to send them back to death row.

Florida's death row
Death-penalty cases draw on a lot more legal resources, said Mark Schlackman, senior program director for the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.

“It is substantially more expensive,” he said.

Michael Nielsen, who is one of Toledo’s three defense attorneys, said that death-penalty murder cases are twice if not three times as expensive as those without the death penalty.

Purdy said too much money is spent on the death penalty.

“We have a criminal justice system that’s run on a Volkswagen budget but we have a death penalty system that’s run like a Cadillac,” Purdy said.

Larizza said money is not a consideration when deciding whether a person deserves the death penalty.

“I’m not going to say that to the family members of murder victims and say it’s too expensive. We will find a way to pay to seek death in cases where we think that’s the right thing to do and when we don’t we won’t and usually the victims’ family agree with us. That’s what we strive for.”

Belanger said that the death penalty does take too long to impose. But rather than doing away with it, legislators should correct the process so that the penalty is applied in a reasonable amount of time.

“Fix it. Fix it,” he said, the second time louder than the first.

Belanger agrees that the death penalty should not be about retribution.

“No, it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be about payback,” said Belanger, adding that it’s not about deterrence either.

“People have said to me on the other side of the issue ‘Well, you know, it’s not a deterrent.’” Well, it’s not called a death deterrent. It’s called a death penalty. It’s a penalty.”

Source: news-journalonline.com, Frank Fernandez, January 13, 2018

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?