A new Amnesty International report calls on Florida to rethink its attachment to the death penalty. Building on concerns raised in the past three years by two US Supreme Court Justices, it questions whether Florida is reserving the ultimate punishment for the “worst of the worst”, by which it is constitutionally bound
Canada supplies more visitors to Florida than any other country in the world, with more than three million of us visiting the Sunshine State each year. Yet, while the bustle and beauty of South Beach may be just a three-hour flight from cities like Ottawa or Montreal, there is a sense in which the distance between us is far greater. A decades-wide gulf in fact.
We’re talking about the death penalty. While Canada long ago abandoned this punishment, Florida remains one of its most enthusiastic proponents. This is a tale of two roads taken, with an odd synchronicity along the way, but ultimately in different directions.
The last executions in Canada were on December 11, 1962, when two men were hanged in Toronto’s Don Jail. Seventeen months later, on May 12, 1964, two men were killed in Florida’s electric chair. These could have been the last executions in Florida. Regrettably, they were not. The halt in executions proved to be nothing more than a 15-year pause.
In 1972, the US Supreme Court overturned the USA’s capital laws because of the arbitrary way in which death sentences were being handed out. Some observers thought this would be the end of the death penalty in the country, but legislators had other ideas. They were led by Florida’s lawmakers, who in late 1972 became the first in the country to enact a new capital statute.
That law was upheld by the Supreme Court on 2 July 1976. Less than two weeks later, the Canadian parliament voted to abolish the death penalty, except for some military offences. In 1998, Canada removed these last vestiges of capital punishment from its statute books. That same year, Florida – which by then had put more than 40 people to death since resuming executions in 1979 – moved to cement the death penalty into its Constitution to protect it from judicial ban.
So here we are today. Canada carried out its last execution more than 50 years ago. Florida has executed more than 50 people since 2000 alone. It has the second largest death row of any state in the USA, and lies fourth in the number of people it has put to death. There has been no executive clemency granted in a capital case in Florida for the past 35 years, a period that has seen more than 90 people executed.
A new Amnesty International report calls on Florida to rethink its attachment to the death penalty. Building on concerns raised in the past three years by two US Supreme Court Justices, it questions whether Florida is reserving the ultimate punishment for the “worst of the worst”, by which it is constitutionally bound. Cases highlighted in our report, of individuals sent to death row for crimes committed when they were barely out of their frequently abusive childhoods, or those with claims of mental or intellectual disability, suggest that it is not.
In the past two years the Florida Supreme Court has added a new layer of arbitrariness to the capital justice system. It decided that only about half of those on death row could benefit from a 2016 US Supreme Court ruling that Florida’s capital statute was unconstitutional for giving juries only an advisory role in death sentencing. As our report shows, the fate of many of those prisoners is now hinging not on factors such as egregiousness of crime or strength of mitigation evidence, but on the timing of their cases in the appeals process.
This decision was the final straw for one state Supreme Court Justice who disagreed with the majority. This partial retroactivity, he wrote, coupled with the “bitter reality” that racial discrimination continues to be a factor in death sentencing, meant that, in his view, Florida’s death penalty was now unconstitutional. Unfortunately, his opinion was in the minority.
There it is. Florida may be in the same time zone as Ottawa and Montreal, but on this issue it appears to be stuck in the past.
Poles apart need not mean distant relations, however. Canadians are in as good a position as anyone to call upon Florida to change direction. We spent $3.8 billion in Florida last year, and when we visit, mostly for leisure and holidays, we stay about three weeks on average – twice as long as other international visitors.
The president of the state’s official tourism marketing corporation, which is making a big push on promoting Florida to Canadians, said in April: “We will keep working to send a warm, open and welcoming message to our Canadian friends, and let them know that there is no better time than right now to visit Florida.”
Friends should speak to each other. We Canadians can let Floridians know how we have lived for more than half a century without the death penalty, and are proud that dozens more countries have joined the abolitionist cause since then.
In 1976, Canada opted for the road less travelled. The USA, led by Florida, took a wrong turn. The Sunshine State should look to Canada as more than an economic opportunity, and learn from its experience in ridding itself of the ultimate cruel and degrading punishment.
By Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada and Geneviève Paul, Director General of Amnesty International Canada’s Francophone Branch.
Tags: Death Penalty, Florida, Canada, Social economic and cultural rights.
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