In my younger days, long, long ago and far, far away I would never have imagined that I would see the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa, an African American president and an American pope, yet all have come to pass. Now there is a glimmer of hope that in Florida there is a possibility, perhaps not yet a probability, that the death penalty will be abolished. I think of these words spoken by Simeon when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple, “now Master you have kept your word, you can dismiss your servant in peace.”
Several things have come together which place the death penalty in Florida on a new trajectory. First there was the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court which ruled that Florida law which made a jury’s deliberations about the death penalty in a case merely consultative and not deliberative (leaving it ultimately up to the judge) was unconstitutional. Bundled within this decision was that merely requiring a simple majority of the jury to recommend execution to the judge was also unconstitutional? As I have pointed out so often when addressing this topic in previous blogs, this minimalist approach to a life and death decision cried out to heaven for vengeance. Happily heaven can wait, the SCOTUS found similarly.
Florida is one of only three states (Alabama and Delaware) which do not require a unanimous jury and earlier this year, the Florida legislature took an easy path in applying what they hope is a “fix” by raising the number from seven jurors to ten. SCOTUS did not set a size for the jury’s vote but made it clear the seven was a legally unlucky number. Last week the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments derived from the U.S. “Supreme’s” decision in the case of the inmate on death row whose appeal formed the basis of the latter’s decision.
Then, manna from legal heaven descended yesterday upon the state when a Miami judge found the death penalty fix also to be unconstitutional. Now, before deciding the case heard last week, the Florida Supreme Court knows that a more foundational issue is on its way to them which may just skew their thinking in the earlier case. Wow!
Our Attorney General, Pam Bondi, has often said publicly and in conversation with the state’s bishops that she fully supports the application of the death penalty, fully supported the simple majority allowance in the Florida law, and is fully against any effort to require a unanimous jury. I suspect that she was pleased to argue the case before the Florida Supreme Court last week. She would have me say: make no mistake about it; I am 100% in support of the death penalty application and hopeful that it can be attained with the minimum roadblocks possible. At least she is clear, if wrong-headed. She assures us of her unambiguous pro-life position, which is strong when it comes to abortion. But for me, it is like asking Mary Todd Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, “other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the first act?”
Governor Scott is a more interesting case. After many conversations, he has said that he is very uncomfortable signing the death warrants but is obligated to do so by oath and office. He has intimated that were the Legislature to outlaw the death penalty he would likely sign and not veto the bill. He has also said that he only signs those warrants where the evidence is rock-solid that the person accused and found guilty actually committed the crime. He is also fully supportive of most other pro-life positions and I actually believe his wrestling with his conscience when it comes to executions. Equally candidly, he has said, that one cannot be elected to any office in Florida if one is seen as “soft on crime and/or criminals.”
That leads me to the conclusion of this reflection. Those of us who see the death penalty in America as a pro-life issue need to ratchet up our opposition to Florida’s inhumane approach to capital punishment, using whatever means might be available to us to make our case. We can think of the Baptist Church congregation in Charleston, South Carolina who earlier this year, including survivors of those murdered, went to the prison to forgive the perpetrator. They surely did not tell him that it was forgive and forget, for they will never forget his atrocity and they don’t ever want him on the street again. The same for the Amish community in Pennsylvania whose children were massacred but who also marched to the jail to forgive the aggressor. And how about the early Christian community who found it in their heart to forgive Saul of Tarsus, directly responsible for the death of Stephen and the torture of many others. If as we say so pointedly and well in our pro-life effort that God alone has the ability to choose when life begins and when life ends, then justifying capital punishment is beyond the logical pail.
Step up Florida. End the barbaric death penalty in the sunshine state. While I feel deeply for those whose lives have been changed, transformed, deeply hurt by violent crime and we must do everything to see that it does not happen again and those who committed the crime are never free to do it again, it is time to take a deep breath and do the right thing. Finally, if any Catholic wishes to use Saint John Paul’s minuscule opening against me, bring it on, but recall the words of Pope Francis to the US Congress on this very topic.