Murder Victims’ Family Members Sign-On Letter in Support of Protecting People with Serious Mental Illness from the Death Penalty
To Governor DeSantis and Members of the Florida Legislature,
Each of us has lost a family member to a senseless act of violence. At a moment none of us could have predicted or prepared for, we lost children, parents, spouses, siblings, and other family members. Our experiences with the criminal justice system and our struggles with grief are unique but we share the same conclusion: Florida’s lengthy, complicated death penalty process is harmful to victims’ families.
Family members of victims in capital cases are promised justice and healing through an execution. Not only does this promise ignore the real needs of families who have lost a loved one to murder, it’s the opposite of what really happens. Once the death penalty is introduced to the criminal justice process, the entire process changes, leaving many victims’ family members with a negative experience that puts them in a state of emotional limbo and turmoil. This is especially true in cases involving people with serious mental illness.
Because of constitutional mandates that seek to ensure due process before an execution is carried out, capital cases take much longer than noncapital cases. In Florida, that translates to an average time on death row of more than 16 years. Capital cases are also more complex, stressful, and high-profile, creating greater opportunities for errors that could overturn a conviction and/or sentence, as has happened many times in Florida. Capital cases involving individuals with serious mental illness can be excessively drawn out, prolonging the process even more. We are also mindful that executions create a new set of grieving families.
The death penalty is said to be reserved for “particularly heinous murders.” We have difficulty understanding this position. The implication is that other murders are “ordinary.” From experience, we know that every murder is heinous to the family of the victim. As Florida holds out its broken death penalty system as justice – cherry-picking cases to receive the disproportionate attention and resources of a capital trial – it burdens the vast majority of cases that don’t result in a death sentence. In light of the great need for additional services and policies for crime victims and their families in Florida, that is unacceptable.
Nothing can erase the pain of our loss but we can honor the memory of our loved ones, and other families who may face tragedy, by working for responses to violence that include a recognition of our pain and needs. As lawmakers consider bipartisan legislation that would protect people with serious mental illness from the death penalty (the SMI bill), we hope they will consider how the death penalty fails victims’ families.
We urge the Florida State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign legislation to protect people with serious mental illness from the death penalty, and to redirect the considerable cost savings from this change to fund services and programs for victims’ family members, other crime survivors, and for mental health services.