There are so many people on Florida's Death
Row that the 30-page list of their names stretches about 27 feet
The last execution by lethal injection occurred Feb. 4, when
Johnny L. Robinson was put to death. His death marked the 58th
execution since John Spenkelink was put to death in Florida's
electric chair on May 25, 1979 — about three years after the
nation's death penalty law was reinstated.
Across the country, today marks International Death Penalty
Abolition Day. But after more than two decades, where is the death
penalty going from here — particularly in Florida in the heart of
the death belt? Proponents say it serves as a deterrent to others
who might commit heinous crimes, and brings justice to victims'
Opponents say it is not applied fairly, is not carried out enough
to serve as a deterrent and that society has evolved beyond the
barbarity of state-sanctioned killing.
"We use the death penalty as a vote-getting device," said Richard
Fabbro, director of the Florida Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
"We kill people to get votes. People are not as happy with the death
penalty as they were three years ago or five years ago."
Floridians today have doubts about how this type of justice is
applied, he said.
"The public is very concerned with the way the death penalty is
abused," Fabbro said. "From a realistic standpoint, it's reluctantly
changing slowly. From the federal level, they will probably outlaw
The death penalty was overturned once amid studies showing that
black defendants, and the killers of whites more than blacks, more
often received the death penalty, even if a jury recommended a life
sentence. And some judges at the time, mindful that voters in their
circuits favored the ultimate punishment, disregarded juries'
recommendations and sentenced defendants to death instead.
The racial inequity prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to strike
down the death penalty, and states rushed to enact new legislation
to resurrect it. It resumed in 1976.
That specter of racial disparity still haunts the death penalty
across the country.
"There's no question about it," said Abe Bonowitz, director of
Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. "The real racism
is in the race of the victim. If you kill a white person, you're
much more likely to get the death penalty."
However, more defendants on Florida's Death Row today are white.
There currently are 124 black men on Death Row in Florida,
compared with 228 white men and 8 Hispanic men, according to Florida
Department of Corrections records. However, some men listed as
"white" appear to be of Latino descent although classified as white,
Bonowitz said. There are two men listed as having "unidentified"
One woman sits on Death Row.
Bonowitz said by not counting all of the Hispanic inmates as
Hispanic, and counting them as white, the statistics on Death Row
inmates are skewed.
"Sometimes a Hispanic killing another Hispanic is not given the
same weight," said Public Defender Robert R. Jacobs II, who
serves Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. "Why? I
Information on the race of Death Row inmates' victims was
unavailable from the Department of Corrections.
Twentieth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Steve Russell said the
death penalty is a public policy issue, and given careful weight by
Florida legislators. Safeguards are in place at the state and
federal levels to ensure a fair and accurate application of justice,
The death penalty has shown some flaws, however. In 2000,
Illinois Gov. George Ryan cleared that state's Death Row by offering
a blanket clemency, reducing prisoners' sentences to life behind
Since 1976, 11 people had been put to death while 13 others had
been released. Investigators and a college journalism class found
that some confessions had been coerced by police and DNA evidence
had exonerated others.
"Immediately there was some discussions on whether we should
revisit our death penalty statute," said Carolyn Snurkowski,
assistant deputy attorney general for Florida criminal appeals. Her
division prosecutes death penalty cases once they are appealed.
"Thus far that has not occurred. We get caught up in the bigger
picture and once we have more scrutiny, we see we don't have those
Bonowitz said 25 inmates have been released from Death Row in
Florida since 1973. Since 1979, more than twice that have been
Snurkowski said she doesn't think 25 is an accurate number, but
said she did not keep statistics on that. Debbie Buchanan,
spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections, said the
department does not maintain statistics on the number of inmates
exonerated or those whose cases have been overturned on appeal.
In Illinois, Ryan's critics said he was trying to leave a
positive legacy for himself at a time when he was facing rumors of a
scandal in the Secretary of State's Office when he was in charge of
that office. Clearing Death Row with a blanket clemency was a
political move, critics said. A moratorium on its use still exists
today in Illinois.
"Standing up (against) the death penalty is hardly something that
casts you in a good light in most people's eyes," Bonowitz
There are going to be years when the death penalty faces more
scrutiny, Snurkowski said, but many residents favor executions.
Although she's never bought into the notion of executions serving
as a deterrent against brutal crimes, she said, residents view it as
a way to enact retribution: an eye for an eye.
The death penalty will remain in Florida, and through most of the
country in the future, she said, but she prefers a nation sitting on
the fence between demanding regular executions and questioning them.
"Except for Illinois, we really haven't had many states abolish
the death penalty, or put a moratorium on it," Snurkowski said.
Bonowitz said the death penalty is not carried out with a great
enough frequency to clearly show it serves as a deterrent. Less than
1 percent of Death Row inmates are executed each year, he said.
Spenkelink was the only Death Row inmate to be executed in
Florida in 1979 and no others were executed until 1983 when Robert
Sullivan was put to death. The electric chair cranked out eight
executions in 1984, including that of Arthur Freddy Goode, convicted
of killing Cape Coral boy Jason Verdow. Executions have hovered
between one to three most years since then, except for four in 1990,
four in 1998 and six in 2000.
Defense lawyers and death penalty opponents say the death penalty
eventually will be phased out of society.
"I'd like to believe we'd get shaken up enough that we'd abolish
it in three years," Fabbro said. "But that's a dream. If I were to
put money on it, I would say Florida, in its paranoia and self
interest would depend on the feds to abolish it."
Russell said it is used only in the worst of the worst murder
cases and the majority of Florida residents support executions.
"I think we have a very thorough process in Florida," said
Russell, whose office is prosecuting about six death penalty cases.
"The defendant has rights that need to be respected and, on the
other hand, society has the right to have the sentence carried out
after due process."