The Death Penalty in Florida: Cruel and Unjust.
A Legacy of Harm: Race and the Death Penalty.
Our criminal justice system should always seek to uphold Christian values of truth, redemption, and fairness. Florida’s use of the death penalty undermines these values and contributes to a culture of violence and retribution without restoration.
Life is a fundamental value of the Christian faith; the instruction to respect life is the sixth of the Ten Commandments expressed in Exodus 20 where our God clearly commands: “You shall not kill”. Our Lord Jesus Christ in his answer to a Pharisee’s question:
“Master, which is the great commandment in the law?”
In interpreting the Mosaic Law, Jesus goes a step further and says:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, you shall love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments depends all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 12:28-34).
The death penalty is the capstone of a racially biased criminal justice system with a legacy of deep harm; a highly visible and violent tool of oppression against the most vulnerable. Its violence is both direct, to those personally touched by it, including victims and those who work in the system, and indirect, to all of us.
This harm is not new. The death penalty is part of our nation’s long, brutal record of racial injustice, from slavery to systemic racism. According to research by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington DC, counties and regions that today carry out the most executions are the same places in which lynching’s were most likely to take place.
The link between lynching and the death penalty is clearly seen in Florida, where the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Alabama has documented 317 lynching between 1877 and 1950 – among the highest numbers in the nation. These “racial terror” lynching were used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation against black persons. The victims were murdered for as little as violating a white social norm, such as failing to show respect to a white person.
While less well known, thousands of racial terror killings were carried out by vigilante mobs against Mexicans in the west and southwest, especially along the border states. Land disputes in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were a big factor in the lynching, in which the victims were killed by hanging, whipping, shooting, and even burning. These killings are part of a long history of discrimination against Spanish speaking people in the U.S. – a history that includes deportations and segregation.
The death penalty is inextricably linked to this history. The discrimination that led to stereotyping of black and brown persons, especially men, as inherently dangerous is deeply embedded in the systems of today, including the criminal justice system. And it remains a factor in determining who lives and who dies, especially in Florida.
There are 333 people on Florida’s death row, the second largest in the country. 43% of these individuals are Black even though Black Americans make up only 16% of Florida’s population. There are 19 Latinos on Florida’s death row, and at least five Latinos have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Florida, only to be later exonerated. All told, three-fourths (22 of 30) of those who were exonerated from Florida’s death row are people of color.  And the disparity in wrongful convictions doesn’t stop there. A stunning eighty-three percent (25 of the 30) of the persons exonerated from Florida’s death row were wrongfully convicted in cases involving at least one white victim.
This “race-of-victim effect” extends to all death penalty cases: cases that involve white victims are far more likely to result in a death sentence than cases involving black or Latino victims. Among the busiest death chambers in the country, Florida has carried out 99 executions since 1976. According to a 2016 University of North Carolina study of all Florida executions between 1976 and 2014, 72% involved white victims even though 56% of all Florida homicide victims during that period were white. Nationally, Latinos are murdered at twice the rate of white people, but less than 7% of victims in pending death penalty cases are Latino.
Vulnerable to Execution: Serious Mental Illness and the Death Penalty.
Nearly one-fifth of Floridians (17.5%) aged 18 and older have a mental illness.  Yet as a result of poor quality mental health care or lack of access to appropriate and culturally competent mental health care – a problem acutely felt in communities of color – Floridians with serious mental illness are over-represented in the criminal justice system. And this problem is not limited to adults. According to Mental Health America, 65% to 70% of children in the U.S. juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health condition.
Despite this disparity, there is no bar to execution for persons with serious mental illness. Indeed, mental health issues have a broad impact in death penalty cases. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, one in ten prisoners executed in the United States are “volunteers” — defendants or prisoners who have waived their rights so they can be executed. Mental illness also affects defendants’ decisions regarding participation in legal proceedings, attorney communications, and jury perceptions of the defendant. And persons with serious mental illness are at extremely high risk of falsely confessing.
Although jurors are required to consider mental illness as a reason for mercy when determining punishment, the sentencing statute is complicated and fails to ensure that serious mental deficiencies are given adequate consideration. For many persons with serious mental illness, shame or lack of insight into their illness may lead them to deny they are sick, even when they are facing death.
Too Risky to Continue: An Appalling Record.
Since 1973, one hundred and eighty-five people have been exonerated and released from death row. That translates to a shocking and appalling rate of error: for every 8.3 executions in the United States, a wrongfully condemned person is exonerated. And this problem of innocent people being sentenced to die is not isolated to a few states. Death row exonerations have occurred in 29 different states, though they are more frequent in states with a history of aggressive pursuit of the death penalty.
This trend is seen in Florida, which has the second largest death row in the nation and the most death row exonerations of any state, with 30 since 1973. Florida also has the most counties with death row exonerations, with 20. But perhaps the most shocking statistic is Florida’s rate of error: for every three people executed since the death penalty was reinstated in Florida, one innocent person has been exonerated and released from death row.
For those of us who affirm the value of life, a single wrongful execution is unacceptable. We must keep in mind the divine exhortation in Exodus 23:7.
“You shall depart from the word of falsehood, and you shall not kill the innocent and righteous; for I will not justify the wicked.”
People of color are overrepresented in Florida’s tragic error rate, which research shows is not merely the result of accidental or unintentional mistakes. Instead, the wrongful capital convictions are overwhelmingly the result of law enforcement or prosecutorial misconduct or false testimony, including by informants known as “jailhouse snitches.” Nationally, misconduct was a factor in three-quarters (78.8%) of wrongful capital cases with a black defendant, in more than two-thirds (68.8%) of wrongful capital cases with a Latino defendant, and in 58.2% of cases with white defendants.
As the Death Penalty Information Center states in its latest report on innocence, “Wrongful capital convictions are not race neutral. DPIC’s exoneration data shows that exonerees of color… are more likely to be victims of official misconduct and false accusation, more likely to be wrongfully convicted and condemned, and more likely to spend longer periods facing execution or under the continuing shadow of their wrongful conviction than white death-row exonerees.”
False Promise: The Death Penalty Fails Murder Victims’ Families.
The death penalty is often held out by prosecutors and other death penalty proponents as “justice” for the families of murder victims – a promise that flies in the face of reality. Once the death penalty is introduced to the criminal legal process, everything gets more complicated and more stressful. It also guarantees a longer process; leaving surviving loved ones in a state of emotional limbo and turmoil for years and often decades. Meanwhile, the death penalty’s exorbitantly expensive process diverts millions of dollars and attention that could and should go to help murder victims’ families and to solve unsolved crimes.
According to the Center for Victim Research, murder victims’ families face a special set of circumstances that put them at risk for secondary victimization. These survivors need ongoing support, including specialized grief counseling, as well as financial assistance and legal assistance. Yet murder victims’ families in Florida lack readily available, consistently funded, and accessible services. This problem is especially acute in Black and Brown communities, which often face high homicide rates and additional barriers to specialized support services, and in all communities that have strained or distrusting relationships with law enforcement. Yet in Florida, the vast majority of the state’s victims’ services are located in law enforcement offices.
The Way Forward: Truth, Fairness, and Redemption.
Despite its history, Florida is well positioned to see positive change on the death penalty. Polling reveals that Floridians, like the rest of the country, have moved away from capital punishment, preferring life sentences to executions. And there is pending bipartisan legislation that would end the death penalty for persons with serious mental illness – a significant and important step toward justice.
Throughout history there are moments of opportunity that people of faith have taken advantage of to bring about changes that honor the inherent value of each person as a child of God, created in His image and likeness and deserving of dignity and respect, we must remember what the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:29.
“For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
Every human being, whether sitting in a church pew or locked up on death row bears the image of God and is worthy of the life God has bestowed upon him.
This is a very important moment. To lead on this life and death issue requires a deep and critical look at how it is actually being applied. It requires courage to see the truth even when our own emotions naturally lead us to recoil from acts of violence. It means keeping our eyes on the collective good and asking healing questions that help us to help each other in the wake of violence and to prevent future acts of violence: How did this happen? What can we do to ensure it doesn’t happen again? How can we help the victims? How can we help the community? The death penalty is not the answer to these questions.
Although evangelical Christians are in favor of life, not only from birth but to the grave, and although we agree that the law should be severe with those who have committed violent acts, we believe that the death penalty violates the divine law that commands us not to kill.
The execution of a human being at the hands of the state closes all possibility of repentance and restoration in life, a sentence of life imprisonment to someone who has been found guilty of a violent crime, without reasonable doubt, is an alternative to the death penalty sentence.
The demise of the death penalty will come about through educating others about the values of truth, redemption and fairness. If we speak up for these truths, the end of the death penalty will be one part of a larger story of how the justice system was transformed to one that is non-violent, humane, and healing.
Contribution from Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP) and Mission Talk Editorial Team.
 Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty
 Death Penalty Information Center, Washington, D.C.
 Death Penalty Information Center
 Equal Justice USA
 Death penalty info center. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/facts-and-research/dpic-reports/dpic-special-reports/dpic-special-report-the-innocence-epidemic
 Death penalty Info Center