Florida’s approach to the death penalty is deepening its outlier status on this human rights issue and has now added an extra layer of arbitrariness to its already discriminatory and error-prone capital justice system, Amnesty International said in a new report released today.
“While several US states have embraced abolition in recent years, Florida remains a diehard proponent of the death penalty and one of a handful of states that account for the bulk of executions in the USA,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.
“Despite its capital sentencing law being found unconstitutional two years ago, Florida still has the second largest death row in the country. Its response to that ruling has been to dig in and defend the indefensible, including the execution of people with mental and intellectual disabilities.”
Florida shows few signs of joining the USA’s 19 states that have already abolished the death penalty or the others that are rethinking it. It is ranked fourth in the number of executions carried out in the USA since 1976, when the US Supreme Court approved new capital laws.
Darkness visible in the Sunshine State: The death penalty in Florida examines how many death row inmates have been denied the chance of a review of their death sentences by the state’s response to the Hurst v. Florida ruling in 2016, in which the US Supreme Court overturned the state’s capital sentencing statute because it gave juries only an advisory role in death sentencing.
Instead of responding with a serious reassessment of capital justice, the state legislature quickly moved to revise the statute to allow death sentencing to resume. Florida’s Supreme Court has since made the Hurst ruling apply only to a limited group of existing cases, meaning about half of the nearly 400 people then on death row would not even be entitled to new sentencing hearings.
As one of Florida’s Justices predicted when objecting to the decision to grant only limited retroactivity, the fate of those on death row would depend on “little more than a roll of the dice”. Four people deemed to fall on the wrong side of the retroactivity cut-off have already been put to death, while scores more await execution.
The report provides case examples of the sort of arbitrariness being wrought upon death row, showing how some individuals are getting relief and others not, often simply due to timing.
Matthew Marshall is on death row for murder committed in 1988 when he was 24 years old. The jury voted unanimously for life imprisonment but the judge overruled their decision, sentencing Marshall to death. Even though such overrides are now prohibited in Florida following the Hurst ruling, he has been deemed ineligible for retroactive relief.
Even before the Hurst ruling, two US Supreme Court Justices had argued that the death penalty in the USA has fallen into disrepair because of arbitrariness and error, and was not being reserved for the “worst of the worst” crimes and offenders, as required under US constitutional law. The situation in Florida illustrates all their concerns.
The report focuses on three categories of death row prisoners: individuals with serious mental disability, those assessed with actual or borderline intellectual disability, and young adults deemed as having mental maturity lower than 18-year-olds and backgrounds of severe deprivation and abuse.
By being sentenced to death, these defendants are being branded as the “worst of the worst” – offenders whose “extreme culpability makes them the most deserving of execution”. The cases examined in the report question the assumption that the use of the death penalty in the Sunshine State is in line with this constitutional restriction.
The featured cases include that of Tony Watts, who was sentenced to death in Florida in 1989 and has spent almost half of the years since then in a prison psychiatric hospital because of his severe mental disability. The state continues to defend his death sentence rather than commute it.
The report also highlights how race influences use of the death penalty in Florida. Twenty of the state’s 96 executions since 1976 were of black defendants convicted of killing white victims, but no white person has been executed for killing solely a black person in Florida. Despite this imbalance, it remains almost impossible for the those under sentence of death to mount a successful claim of systemic racial discrimination.
“The USA must stop resorting to the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, and join the 142 countries that are abolitionist in law or practice today,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right. The death penalty is no way to impart justice. Florida and all other states where the death penalty is still in use must impose immediate moratoriums on executions until they can end this cruel practice once and for all.”
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty unconditionally. The organization calls on Florida’s governor and his cabinet to stop signing death warrants and commute the death sentences of all those on death row as first critical steps towards abolition.
Prosecutors in Florida should stop pursuing this punishment when faced with capital murder cases and, at a minimum, the authorities should ensure that all judges and juries are made fully aware of the mitigating evidence surrounding mental and intellectual disabilities, emotional and psychological immaturity, or backgrounds of abuse and deprivation of all defendants and death row prisoners.