Friday 4 February 2011

To save money, Florida should kill death penalty

Now that the hunt is on to wring out every superfluous dollar in the state budget, how about getting rid of the death penalty?
Yes, the death penalty in Florida just might be the ultimate entitlement program we can't afford.
"The number of inmates since 2000 on Death Row dying of natural causes has now surpassed the number of inmates executed," Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon said recently.
Surely, Cannon must be wrong. That sounds preposterous.
But Cannon's right.
In the past 10 years, the state executed 25 Death Row inmates, which was fewer than the 30 who died of natural causes, according to a review by
Of the 392 Florida prisoners serving death sentences, 145 of them have been there for 20 or more years and 34 have been there longer than 30 years. The oldest inmate is 80. And another one, Gary Alvord, a Michigan mental institution escapee who fled to Tampa and killed three women, has been on Death Row for 37 years.
A long, expensive process
The state restarted executing inmates in 1979 and has averaged about two executions per year, a pace that far from keeps up with the supply of new arrivals.
Part of that is due to gruesome application errors with the state's execution methods, both in electrocution and lethal injections, that resulted in temporary moratoriums. But mostly, it's because the legal process involved in putting someone to death is long. And expensive.
It's cheaper to lock up inmates for life than to put them on the Death Row carousel of legal appeals. The annual difference in cost is about $51 million, according to a 10-year-old Palm Beach Post study. Another study by The Miami Herald estimated that it costs about $3.2 million to execute a prisoner as compared with $750,000 to lock that prisoner up for life.
Risk of killing innocent inmates
In some cases, their legal journey seems to border on never-ending.
Duane Owen, a sociopath who murdered a 14-year-old babysitter in Delray Beach in 1984, has had two trials and at least six unsuccessful appeals to the Florida Supreme Court.
Now, I know what you're thinking. The solution is to get in touch with our inner Texas and just start picking up the pace.
But recent developments in the analysis of DNA evidence have pointed out the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and have proven that people convicted of horrible crimes are sometimes wrongly convicted by over-eager prosecutors. The Illinois House of Representatives voted last month to abolish the death penalty eight years after its governor emptied Death Row after finding that a dozen innocent prisoners had been condemned to die.
And in Florida, Herman Lindsey was freed by the state Supreme Court a little more than a year ago, becoming the 23rd Death Row prisoner in Florida who had been exonerated since the death penalty was revived in 1979.
"The average time these exonerated prisoners spent on Death Row was eight years," said Mark Elliot, the executive director of Floridians for an Alternative to the Death Penalty. "If you speed the process up, you're virtually guaranteeing that you'll be executing innocent people."
And here's a little icing on this macabre cake.
The only U.S. maker of the lethal injection drug, sodium thiopental, got out of the business recently, and our would-be European suppliers don't want to export death-penalty drugs to America because of an unwillingness to enable our executions.
So there's a shortage of death-penalty drugs.
Ohio's response is to switch to pentobarbital - the drug veterinarians use to put down dogs.
So this just might be a perfect time for Florida to reevaluate.
As long as our Death Row inmates are dying of old age, getting rid of the death penalty could serve as a kind of twofer: We can rescue a bit of our humanity along with our tax dollars.
Frank Cerabino

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