Editorial: Does Innocence Matter to Florida?

From Gary Stein, columnist for the Sun-Sentinel, published yesterday:

I guess the possibility of getting innocent people out of prison or off Death Row is no longer a priority in Florida.

Drug testing welfare recipients? Yep, a priority. Purging possible legitimate voters off the voter rolls? Darn-tootin a priority.

But in a state where 23 innocent people people who were wrongly sentenced to be executed have been released from Death Row since 1973 — that’s the biggest number in the country, by the way — the chance of executing an innocent person is apparently no big deal.

At least, that’s the impression I got when funding was eliminated recently for the Florida Innocence Commission, which had been created by the state Supreme Court to study wrongful convictions.

Gov. Scott decided not to fund it this year, at what would have been a cost of about $235,000. Fine, he’s the governor, he makes decisions, and he doesn’t see the need to fund the commission anymore past the original two years it was intended to exist.

I called the folks at the Innocence Project in New York, which exists to help folks who might have been wrongly convicted, and they weren’t terribly worked up by Florida not funding the commission any more.

“By and large, their work has been done,” I was told by Paul Cates, communications director for the Innocence Project.

The Florida Innocence Commission is supposed to come up with some recommendations by the end of the month. My recommendation would have been to keep it going for the relatively paltry sum, for the possibility of exonerating another innocent person.

And also for the possibility of making people re-think the death penalty.

Five states in the last five years have abolished the death penalty, the most recent being Connecticut earlier this year. Overall, 17 states have abolished the death penalty.

It’s a trend that is taking hold, but sadly, it will reach conservative, tea-party crazy Florida about the same time we abolish concealed weapons. In other words, not in my lifetime.

I admit, I have vacillated on the death penalty.

In my younger days — no wisecracks, please — I was all in favor of it. As I grew older, I had more questions about it.

And as I have done more reading and research and thinking about the death penalty — and as DNA evidence has become more prevalent — I really believe it has little or no value.

The most important reason, of course, is that an innocent person can be put to death. It’s happened before, and will happen again.

But some of the other reasons for keeping the death penalty just don’t hold up.

It’s not a deterrent. Studies have shown that, but more importantly, how much of a deterrent can the death penalty really be when a person is on Death Row for 20 years and when they are finally executed, it barely makes a few paragraphs in the back pages of a newspaper. What does that prove?

I’m not sure it brings a sense of justice. Again, if a family waits 20 years to see a killer executed, is that justice? And justice isn’t supposed to be just for the family of the victims. It is for society as a whole, and life in prison without parole would seem to more than serve the purpose.

It is not financially sound. One report I saw showed 85 wrongful convictions in Illinois found that convicting and imprisoning the wrong person cost taxpayers $214 million. The Innocence Commission and the reforms it was supposed to pursue might have cut down on some wrongful convictions. Wrongful convictions are hardly unusual in the criminal justice system. Another report said the average wrongful conviction costs taxpayers about $2 million.

And, of course, the death penalty is hardly foolproof.

But that doesn’t matter in today’s I’m-tougher-on-crime-than-you political climate.

People want to see death sentences handed down, even if there can be irrevocable mistakes and even if it takes millions of dollars and countless years of appeals before an execution actually takes place. And they don’t seem to mind if innocent people spend decades behind bars.

And if an execution actually does occur, unless it’s an extremely high profile case, the only ones who really know about it or care are witnesses to the execution and family members of the victim.

Being opposed to the death penalty doesn’t make you weak on crime. It makes you sensible.

Related:

Florida Governor Rick Scott Puts State’s Innocence Commission to Death

Editorial: Florida Innocence Commission Deserves Life

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One thought on “Editorial: Does Innocence Matter to Florida?

  1. I agree with Scott’s decision, for once. (And I do mean once.)

    Florida’s Innocence Commission was not reviewing clouded convictions, it was chasing the elusive butterfly of “preventing future wrongful convictions,” and not well.

    Florida needs a Conviction Integrity Unit. Immediately.

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