TALLAHASSEE -- An effort to abolish the death penalty in Florida finally got a hearing Thursday in a House committee after a three-year effort, but then quickly went down to defeat.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted 9-4 against a bill (HB 4005) that would have statutorily abolished the death penalty in the state.
But the rare vote to kill a bill in committee, rather than just bottling it up never to be heard, gave death penalty opponents their first chance to extensively argue for a repeal, following several years in which the measure's sponsor, Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, has been unable to persuade Republican leaders to put the bill before a committee.
Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, offered extensive praise for committee chairman Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, for being willing to allow the debate on the often divisive and emotional issue. Gaetz also had the committee take testimony from a number of death penalty opponents, including a rabbi, a university criminology professor and a woman whose daughter and grandson were murdered but who has advocated against the death penalty.
The debate and vote on the bill preceded another discussion on potential flaws in application of the death penalty, the beginning of a discussion that may result in legislation later this year.
But Gaetz said that before debating whether to make the death penalty law better, it only made sense to take up the "threshold question … of whether Florida should even have the death penalty."
Rehwinkel Vasilinda said she was passionate about the notion that it should not, citing the too high chance of executing someone who is innocent - considering that 24 death row inmates have been exonerated. She also cited her own personal beliefs that arise out of her Catholic faith. She also said the United States is increasingly out of step with other modern democracies, most of which have banned capital punishment.
Most of those who spoke in favor of abolishing the death penalty said it was because it was unfairly applied, and the state's track record on wrongful convictions doesn't seem to be very good.
Rep. Kionne McGhee, a former prosecutor who also experienced the justice system from the perspective of someone whose father and brother were murdered, said regardless of whether it's right, the system doesn't work.
"One innocent life taken on death row is enough to question the system," said McGhee, D-Miami.
Rehwinkel and others also told the committee that there's a growing sense that even if it were the right thing to do philosophically, that the expense of carrying out the death penalty is depriving communities of money that could go for other criminal justice needs.
Gaetz said he, too, was passionate about the issue, but on the other side, and believes above all else, that it serves as a deterrent in particular situations, if not more broadly.
"I like knowing today that in Florida everybody knows that if you kill a cop you will be executed," Gaetz said. "I want everybody in prison to know that if a corrections officer is killed by your hand, you will die."
The committee also heard a plea in favor of keeping the death penalty from another perspective. State Attorney Brad King, a central Florida prosecutor, laid out gruesome details of some of the state's most notorious murders of children, arguing that some crimes are simply so atrocious that death for the murderer is the only option that makes any sense.
He reminded the panel about the case of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, for example, and how after being abducted and raped, she was buried alive, and investigators noted the marks on her finger nails from trying to claw her way out of a plastic bag.
Murderers chose to end those lives without due process, he said.
"By their choice, by their decision, they should be judged," King said.
And King asked the panel what he should say to the families of the children he mentioned, who may wonder why their loved ones died but a brutal killer might be allowed to live.
"It is right to say their life is not more valuable than the little lives that they took," King said.
Gaetz said the committee will continue to listen to death penalty opponents as it takes a broader look at fairness issues with the application of capital punishment.