By Jan Pudlow
Can Florida continue to afford the death penalty?
Rex Dimmig, chief assistant public defender of the 10th Judicial Circuit in Bartow, brought that question to a recent Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee meeting.
On behalf of the Florida Public Defender Association, Dimmig called for a moratorium on the death penalty.
“We discovered that the most expensive, most time-consuming, and least cost-effective service we provided was representation in death penalty cases,” Dimmig told the committee.
“And when I use the term ‘least cost effective,’ I am not talking about a philosophical debate over whether or not the state of Florida should have a death penalty. What I am talking about is the economic stuff.”
He estimated that Florida spends $51 million a year to impose and implement the death penalty, rather than sending convicted first-degree murderers to prison for life without parole. It is estimated that each execution costs taxpayers $24 million.
The Florida Supreme Court wrote an opinion in 2005 saying there should be legislative reform of the death penalty statute, Dimmig noted, and an ABA study of Florida’s death penalty in 2006 recommended reform, too.
“But those of us who actually work in the system did not need a Supreme Court opinion. We did not need an ABA study to know that the system is broken,” Dimmig said.
“We recognize that capital punishment, as it currently exists in Florida, cannot continue to sustain itself. In time, it is simply going to collapse under its own weight.”
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chair of this appropriations committee and also the Commission on Capital Cases, told Dimmig: “I have respectfully let you go on, even though I respectfully disagree with most of what you said.”
Though Crist said he had to debate the other side when he was a Catholic high school student, he’s heard from enough murder victims’ families to make him favor the death penalty, while “trying to address issues that never seem to end.”
The senator talked about getting rid of “multiple, wasteful appeals.”
“The bottom line is until the people of the state of Florida vote at the polls that they don’t want the death penalty,” Crist said, he will focus on making sure the death penalty is carried out in a just and humane way.
After the meeting, Dimmig said: “I have the utmost respect for Sen. Crist. We are not interested in asking for the abolition of the death penalty. We are advocating a moratorium.
“The timing is right now. The death penalty is such an emotional issue that we need some other event to cause us to look at it.”
That event, Dimmig said, is Florida’s economic crisis.
With Sen. Crist’s indulgence, Dimmig went through a slide show of the following statistics:
• Currently, (as of January 18) Florida has 391 people on Death Row (the second highest in the nation behind California) and 68 have been executed since Florida resumed executions in 1979.
• The courts have reduced death sentences to life sentences for 274 people since 1984.
• Twenty-three people once on Florida’s Death Row have been exonerated. “However, the definition of exoneration is up for debate, and I’m not going to stand here and say all those people were actually innocent,” Dimmig said. “But under our laws, they have been found not guilty of the offenses that originally had them sentenced to death.”
• In the past 30 years, Florida has executed an average of just over two people per year — about 2.6 people per year.
“At that rate, it would take over 150 years to execute those people who are currently on Death Row. And every year, more people are sentenced to Death Row than are actually executed. At that current rate, the backlog will never be eliminated.
“So you can ask: What if we just speed up the process? Wouldn’t that help?” Dimmig asked.
“Well, history is against us. If you go back to the entire history of the state of Florida, to when we became a state in the 1800s, the most executions that ever took place in the state of Florida in a single year was 11 (1936 and 1942).
“If we execute at that particular rate, it would take over 35 years to eliminate the backlog of people currently on Death Row.
“Now, the death penalty does not only impact the public defenders’ offices. Obviously, it impacts the state attorneys, the Attorney General’s Office, the Governor’s Office, and it impacts the courts,” Dimmig continued.
“It has been estimated that 12 percent of the state Supreme Court case load is death penalty cases, and yet it takes up over 50 percent of their time, delaying their ability to render justice in other cases. Trial court judges spent seven times as much time on a death penalty case as they do on their next most serious criminal cases.”
Among the FPDA’s proposals for reform are to:
• Create a Capital Punishment Policy Advisory Council, made up of members from the Attorney General’s Office, a former justice, a circuit judge, a state attorney, a public defender, a criminal conflict and civil regional counsel, a capital collateral regional counsel, and a representative of a victim advocacy profession. By January 2011, the council would make written recommendations about the administration of justice in capital cases to the governor and Supreme Court.
• Change the law so that Florida is no longer the only state that does not require a unanimous jury verdict to recommend the death penalty, as well as jury findings of the existence of aggravating factors.
• Create a death penalty review board, where the state attorney and defense make presentations. The state attorney would be prohibited from seeking the death penalty without prior authorization from the board.
“Every year, public defenders’ offices across this state spend vast resources, both in terms of manpower hours and money, preparing cases for death penalty proceedings, only to have the state withdraw death as a possible penalty before that case proceeds to court,” Dimmig said.