As Death Penalty Wanes in U.S., Florida Executes Even More Killers
By Aaron Deslatte
Robert Lavern Henry is set to be executed this week for killing two women in 1989 by beating them with a hammer and setting them on fire in a Deerfield Beach fabric store.
He would be the 16th prisoner executed under Gov. Rick Scott's watch, more than any other modern Florida governor in a single term.
At a time when other states are curtailing or outlawing executions, Florida is bucking the trend. A swelling number of death sentences handed down in the 1990s are reaching the ends of their appeals. Florida also is experiencing a rare window of relatively few legal challenges, botched executions or political infighting over the issue.
"It seems like the push now in Florida is to move forward with more dates, and that is different than what we see in the rest of the country," said Richard Dieter, director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
The next closest governor to Scott in carried-out death sentences in a single term was Democratic Gov. Bob Graham, who executed 15 murderers during his second term from 1983-87. Charlie Crist, who is challenging Scott in this year's race, executed five men during his four years as governor. One possible reason is legal challenges at that time to the cocktail mix of drugs used in executions.
Scott says he has been doing nothing differently from his predecessors.
"It's a solemn duty to sign a death warrant," the Republican governor said. "People go through the process, and I do my job. That's how it works.''
Florida has been more likely to hand out death sentences and is the only state that doesn't require unanimous jury recommendations for the death penalty. Florida's 15 death sentences and California's 24 accounted for nearly half of the death sentences dealt nationwide in 2013, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Only nine states carried out executions in 2013, and Maryland became the sixth state in six years to outlaw the death penalty. Meanwhile, Florida executed seven people in 2013, second only to Texas with 16. Florida leads the country with three executions so far this year.
Yet some experts say the Sunshine State's death-penalty system needs sweeping change.
Christopher Slobogin, a law professor at Vanderbilt, chaired the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Assessment Team, which in 2006 issued a study that pronounced Florida capital punishment deeply flawed. It recommended a top-to-bottom review to ensure innocent people weren't being executed. But that never happened.
"As far as I can tell, the Florida system remains in just as much disarray as when we looked at it," he said.
Some lawmakers are still trying to carry out one of the team's proposals to require unanimous jury sentencing recommendations for the death penalty.
"Florida is an outlier," said Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat sponsoring the bill, HB 467.
Instead, lawmakers and governors have tried repeatedly during the past three decades to accelerate executions.
Former Gov. Bob Martinez in 1989 signed more than 90 death warrants, resulting in a backlog of appeals without enough lawyers to handle the cases. Martinez ended up executing nine prisoners during his one term in office.
The state came under national scrutiny after inmates' heads caught on fire when being electrocuted under Govs. Jeb Bush and Lawton Chiles. Bush executed 21 during his eight years in office. Chiles executed 18, also during eight years.
The latest example is the 2013 "Timely Justice" law, which required the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court to certify a list of cases ready for death warrants. In October, the clerk sent a list of 133 names where appeals had been exhausted to Scott's office, out of the about 400 people on death row.
The law set timelines for when Scott must act on those names, although his office still solely determines when the clemency process has been exhausted.
"I think over time we'll see the average amount of time people spend on death row decrease exponentially," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R- Fort Walton Beach, who sponsored the bill. "The effect is clear."
Florida death-row inmates wait about 14 years on average to die, the Department of Corrections says.
Scott's general counsel, Peter Antonacci, said that, although the list had been "helpful," the governor was benefiting from the lack of botched executions and the political and legal fighting that plagued past governors.
But that window may not last.
This past summer, a group of lawyers representing death-row inmates challenged the "Timely Justice" law as a violation of separation of powers and due process for inmates. The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments last month but hasn't ruled yet.
Lawyers last week asked the court to delay Henry's execution until a decision is rendered, but the justices Friday denied that request.
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