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Marchers spotlight growing scrutiny of Florida death penalty

Tallahassee, Fla.

After a 10-day walk, slogging through downpours, past quiet farmland, under vast North Florida skies, foot-weary marchers arrived Jan. 31 in Tallahassee, carrying 20,000 signatures from across the state asking the governor to call a “Time Out on Executions.”

With three stays on Florida executions issued a week after the march -- in effect creating a moratorium on executions -- and the Jan. 3 release of a wrongly convicted man, opposition to Florida’s death penalty system is gaining momentum.

Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty brought together opponents and supporters of capital punishment for the march to the capitol to ask Gov. Jeb Bush to stop signing death warrants until Florida’s system is put under scrutiny.

However, the governor has refused to call an official moratorium. In response to the march, Bush released a statement saying, “There has been no evidence that anyone in Florida has been wrongfully put to death.”

Bush was out of his office campaigning in Central Florida when three former death row prisoners delivered the signatures to the governor’s office. David Keaton, Brad Scott and Delbert Tibbs all had their sentences overturned.

Florida leads the nation in the number of death row prisoners -- 24 -- freed since 1972, all after evidence of their innocence was uncovered. Meanwhile, 51 people have been executed since 1979.

Abe Bonowitz, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, asked, “Would you buy a car from someone with that kind of record?”

About 80 marchers and supporters joined the final rally in Tallahassee Jan. 31. Before leading the demonstrators to the State Capitol, the veterans of Florida’s death row addressed the group. Scott said, “I supported the death penalty, too -- until I ended up on death row.” His conviction was overturned in 1990.

Keaton said, “If the state of Florida had had its way, I wouldn’t be here today. I believed in the court system until I was convicted of something I didn’t do.” Keaton was proved not guilty of a rape charge and released in 1973.

Tibbs, a writer and human rights activist working at Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago, said, “As you can imagine, I’m not overly anxious to be back in Florida, as lovely as it is. I am here to bear witness to the fact the state makes mistakes, as they are made in all human endeavors. A moratorium is an intelligent beginning.” Tibbs’ sentence was overturned in 1977.

Almost 100 gathered Jan. 21 at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, home of Florida’s death row, to begin the trek across the state.

Grandmothers for Peace member Peg McIntyre, 92, took a day off from her job at a candle shop in St. Augustine to join the march. Sister of Mercy Dorothea Murphy charged up the battery in her motorized wheelchair and added her voice to the cause. Steve Rochow of Fort Lauderdale took the less-than-glamorous job of driving a truck pulling the portable toilet that trailed the marchers across the state.

Leaning on a pair of crutches, Delena Stephens, mother of a death row inmate and director of the St. Augustine diocese’s Office of Peace and Justice, hobbled along. Although she acknowledged her son’s rightful conviction, “there are alternatives,” she said. “As a mother, I could be at peace with a life sentence.”

The St. Augustine diocese, the Florida Catholic Conference and Pax Christi Florida were among more than 35 organizations cosponsoring the march.

Tallahassee Committee for a Moratorium on the Death Penalty organizer Walter Moore told the crowd, “We are not a lunatic fringe of crazies. We include abolitionists and those who support the death penalty in principle, but not in its administration.

“We are not soft on crime. We are firm on fairness,” he said.

Lending support to the moratorium effort is former Florida Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan, who reversed his position on the death penalty after leaving the bench and is now part of the Washington, D.C., Constitution Project initiative working to reduce the danger of wrongful death sentences.

Florida’s capital punishment system has been in the spotlight in recent months. Three death row prison guards are currently on trial, accused of beating to death prisoner Frank Valdes. Marcher Bernard Welch of St. Augustine pointed out the “terrible contradiction of officers who are hired to kill people on trial for killing an inmate.”

Meanwhile, on Jan. 3 Juan Melendez became the 24th person to be released from death row in the state. Melendez spent 17 years on death row for a 1983 murder to which another man had repeatedly confessed -- evidence prosecutors withheld.

Then on Feb. 5, Bush decided to postpone the scheduled execution of Robert Trease after the U.S. Supreme Court issued stays for two other death row inmates while it reviews an Arizona case that could have implications for Florida’s criminal justice system. Florida and Arizona are among nine states that allow a judge to impose the death penalty even when a jury has recommended a life sentence.

Trease was scheduled to be executed Feb. 7 for killing a man during a 1995 robbery in Sarasota. He had ceased his appeals and volunteered for lethal injection.

Bonowitz called Bush’s decision “historic. … It is possible that there will never be another legal execution in our state.” With the stays pending the Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona, none of the 372 people on Florida’s death row is scheduled for execution. “This amounts to a de facto moratorium on all executions.” Bonowitz said.

Judy Gross writes from Tallahassee, Fla.

Related Web sites

Florida Department of Corrections Death Row Fact Sheet

Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002