Today, April 18, 2023, the Florida Senate passed HB 1297, Capital Sexual Battery, by a vote of 35-4. The House of Representatives passed HB 1297 last week. The legislation will now head to Governor DeSantis, where it is expected to be signed into law. Allowing the death penalty to be imposed for a crime that does not result in the death of the victim, no matter how heinous the crime, is unconstitutional. This legislation will not help victims. It will, however, create more uncertainty and less finality, which in turn further traumatizes victims.
FADP’s Executive Director Maria DeLiberato responds to the passage of HB 1297:
As both a prosecutor and a capital defender, I have seen first hand the trauma that child sexual abuse inflicts on survivors. As a prosecutor, I could, and did, certainly incarcerate abusers. However, there were few resources to ensure the victim, who often came from the same dysfunctional family system as the defendant, had access to counseling and treatment. It was no surprise then, that more than half of the capital defendants I would later represent suffered from childhood sexual abuse and never received treatment. As such, the cycle of violence persisted.
As the bill’s legislative findings recognize, it is currently constitutionally impermissible to sentence someone to death for a non-homicide crime. I understand that the bill sponsors and supporters believe that with the current makeup of the United States Supreme Court, there is a possibility of overturning that established precedent and paving the way for executions to happen for non-homicide offenses.
However, this is far from a guarantee, and the amount of resources the State of Florida would have to spend as well as the trauma to child victims during the process cannot be understated. In order to have a “test case” to try to change this precedent, there would have to be a trial and a death sentence. That means expending all the attendant costs that go along with a death penalty prosecution – which would include a trial where the child victim would have to testify. As is often the case in child sexual assault cases, the abuser is most often a family member or close family friend. The living child victim, already suffering from the shame of what happened to them, will now have to bear the weight of a possible death sentence on their shoulders, and suffer through decades of appeals.
The State of Florida’s resources are much better spent in trying to protect children from abuse in the first place, and making sure those that are abused have access to mental health treatment and continued therapy immediately after the offense. This is the only real chance of ending the cycle of violence.