Dear Chair Martin, Vice Chair Bradley, and Members of the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee,
My name is Doris Strong, and I’m writing today to voice my opposition to SB 450, Jury Recommendations in Death Penalty Cases.
I am a member of several organizations for crime survivors working together to create healing communities and shape public safety policy.
In Tallahassee in 2013, my father, Willie Dixon, my favorite person in the entire world, was shot and killed by my step-brother. The loss feels just as raw today. I miss our weekly phone calls, baking for him, and taking him grocery shopping. Furious does not begin to describe the feelings I had in those early years. I wanted vengeance, I wanted what I thought was justice. I wanted the person responsible for my daddy’s death to pay.
My step-brother was charged with first-degree murder, and I was informed that prosecutors would be seeking the death penalty. At first, I thought yes, a life for a life, that’s what is fair. But then I stopped – I knew that killing my step-brother’s life would not bring daddy back. If the death penalty would bring back the loved ones we lost, it would be hard to ever argue against it. My step-brother was mentally ill, and misused substances to cope with his unaddressed childhood trauma. Instead of the death penalty, I wanted him to spend the rest of his life thinking about what he’d done, what he’d taken from us, and the lifelong punishment we’d be sentenced to.
If the State sought the death penalty, we knew we would be faced with years of appeals, and my step-brother would spend decades on death row with the case coming back to court and these painful memories resurfacing every few years. Above all else, it would always be about my step-brother, and whether or not he deserved to die, instead of about the wonderful man he stole from us. My step-brother had to live. Our family, including my daddy’s brother, Pastor Eugene Larkins Sr., told the State Attorney we did not want her to seek the death penalty.
If your committee passes this bill, it will make it easier for the state to obtain death sentences. It will lead to more people on death row, more cases clogging the court system, more uncertainty and less finality. Because this bill would be the most extreme of any death penalty state in the country, it will be subjected to decades of legal challenges. If the courts ultimately hold that this new death penalty scheme isn’t legal, just like they did back in 2016, that means that hundreds of victims like me will be dragged right back into court to relive this process all over again.
I understand the desire for the death penalty. And I respect that other families feel differently than I do. No matter what, if the State of Florida is going to retain the death penalty, it should be reliable and accurate. It should be rare and hard to get – which is why the law should require all of the jurors to unanimously agree that death is appropriate. The State should listen to all victims equally – not just the ones who support the death penalty. We cannot be painted with one broad brush.
I will never fully get over the loss of my father. I am blessed to now spend my time working and focusing on healing the trauma of families grappling with loss due to crime. What I am especially grateful for is that I do not have to go to court, speak my step-brother’s name, or relive the worst day of my life on a public stage.
I urge you to vote no on SB 450, and refuse to subject victims to years of chaos and uncertainty.