Dead Issue

Rep. Brad Drake, a Republican from the small Panhandle town of Eucheena, is “sick and tired of this sensitivity movement for criminals” — and weary of death penalty protests. While the nation’s appetite for state- sponsored killings has diminished in recent years — particularly following the execution of Troy Davis, whom many believed was wrongly convicted, Rep. Drake feels no ?such compunction.

In fact, he’d like to add some literal firepower to the state’s Death Row options, implementing firing squads — or what he calls “a 45-caliber lead cocktail” — as an alternate method. He’d also like to fire up Old Sparky, the electric chair at Florida State Prison, which fell into disuse after it caused flames to shoot out of the condemned’s head on occasion.

But Drake’s bill, which would eliminate lethal injection as a means of execution, is just one side of an always heated debate. On the other side of the aisle is Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Democrat from Tallahassee, who wants Florida to do away with the death penalty altogether, and commute the sentences of those on Death Row to life in prison, saving the state millions of dollars each year.

“I’m not in the business of dispensing vengeance,” she says. “As a state representative, I am in the business of making decisions to keep Floridians safe from crime while spending taxpayer money prudently.”

Cost concerns are one issue that both sides of the death penalty debate often agree on. Just to feed, clothe, house and provide medical care for the 390 men and four women on Florida’s Death Row, it costs the Department of Corrections about $6.51 million a year. And a study several years ago by the Palm Beach Post found that, including legal bills, it costs the state about $51 million a year to have a death penalty — an expense above and beyond what it would cost to punish crime with life in prison without the possibility of parole. Rehwinkel Vasilinda says that money would fund about 850 law enforcement officers annually.

“We could do crime prevention much better,” she says, “if we took the money and spent it in a better way.”

An attorney and college professor in Tallahassee, Rehwinkel Vasilinda is pushing her bill, and recently sent Gov. Rick Scott a letter urging him to impose a moratorium on the death penalty in Florida. But neither effort appears likely to succeed anytime soon. Rehwinkel Vasilinda introduced a similar bill last year; it failed 117-2. And on Oct. 10, Scott signed the second death warrant of his administration, setting a Nov. 15 execution date for Oba Chandler, convicted in the 1994 rape-murders of an Ohio woman and her two daughters.

There’s also no sign that death penalty convictions are slowing — particularly in Northeast Florida. In the Fourth Judicial District, which includes Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, State Attorney Angela Corey has made aggressive prosecution a centerpiece of her tenure, and earlier this year blasted a judge who overturned a jury’s recommendation, saying “The people of Florida were deprived of a proper death penalty.”

The Fourth District is well represented on death row. There are currently 394 people on death row — 53 from Duval County alone, including the youngest inmate, 23 year-old Alan Wade, and one of just four women, Tiffany Cole. Four of the first five inmates to die in Florida’s electric chair were from Duval County. And its last use, on July 8, 1999, was for another Jacksonville killer. Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis was executed for the 1982 murder of a pregnant Jacksonville woman, Nancy Weiler, and her two young daughters. Davis bled profusely during his execution, a grisly end that followed two incidents in which flames erupted near or from the heads of inmates. But less than a month later, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the electric chair.

Alan Chipperfield, a death penalty certified lawyer who served in the Duval County Public Defender’s Office for more than 26 years and currently works in the Public Defender’s Office in Gainesville, noted there have been problems with all the methods of executions. But he suggests that Drake’s proposal wouldn’t solve them, and would likely create others.

“To be logical about it, he shouldn’t propose legislation unless he believes there is an improvement to the system, understand why he is doing it and whether it squares with the Constitution,” says Chipperfield, who opposes the death penalty. He says Drake also should consider “the evolving standards of decency.”

Those evolving standards, along with growing concerns over the particularly awful deaths produced by the state’s electric chair, prompted the Florida Legislature in 2000 to change the method of execution to lethal injection, claiming it was more humane. But there have been problems with the deadly three-chemical cocktail as well, including the Dec. 13, 2006, execution of Angel Diaz. After an executioner pushed the plunger injecting the first of three chemicals into Diaz’s arm through an IV tube, it took 34 minutes for the condemned man to die. Later, Medical Examiner William Hamilton discovered that the needles inserted into his arm had punched through the veins, causing the chemicals to go into his muscles. That resulted in a change of protocol, but there have also been questions about the effect of changing one of the chemicals in the cocktail to pentobarbital, and whether it would cause extreme suffering. That drug was used in the September 2011 execution of Manuel Valle for killing a police officer in 1978, but has since been withdrawn by the manufacturer for use in executions.

Firing squads, first used for military executions, is perhaps best known for the Jan. 17, 1977, death of Gary Gilmore at Utah State Prison. His case was immortalized by Norman Mailer’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Executioner’s Song,” and a television movie in 1982, starring Tommy Lee Jones. Utah has since outlawed death by firing squad. Currently, Oklahoma is the only state that permits it.

Whether Florida might be next is at best uncertain. But Drake, who was inspired to introduce the bill after a conversation with constituents at the Waffle House in DeFuniak Springs, is the first to acknowledge his proposal is less about political expediency than pure, old fashioned vengeance.

As he noted in his news release, “I have no desire to humanely respect those that are inhumane.”

Ron Word [email protected]