By Ingrid Delgado, Florida Catholic Conference, Associate for Social Concerns/Respect Life
– August 22, 2014 –
There is an overwhelming disparity in who is sentenced to death depending on the victim’s race, defendant’s race, quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed. The South has carried out 82 percent of all executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. This concerns Floridians, whose state has led the country in the number of death sentences for the past two years, houses the second-largest death row population in the country, and is responsible for the second-highest number of executions (7) carried out in 2013.
But more importantly, we recall that we worship a God who so loved the world that he gave his only son to cleanse us of our sins – yes, even the sins of criminals – by shedding his blood at his own execution. We are called to a challenging but beautiful faith that dares us to say an unreserved ‘yes’ to all life and to forgive others’ trespasses as ours have been forgiven.
Our beloved Pope Saint John Paul II instructed us in Evangelium vitae that executions should be rare, if not non-existent, as society can be kept safe without them. However, in the same exhortation, he also instructed us that we should pursue incremental improvements in the law as steps towards full restoration of justice.
As long as our state continues to sentence people to the ultimate and irreversible fate of execution, every effort must be made to do so justly. Florida must ensure that sentencing is fair and it must minimize the risk of executing an innocent person. Our state has exonerated and freed more persons from death row than any other in the country. Twenty-nine of the 32 states that continue to use the death penalty require the jury to unanimously recommend a sentence of death, just as unanimity is required to establish guilt. Florida only requires a simple majority vote of 7-5.
Senator Thad Altman of Melbourne and Representative Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami, both Catholics, sponsored legislation this session that would address this deficit in capital sentencing. The Catholic Conference supports their bills, which require that:
- The jury be unanimous in its recommendation of death. Otherwise, the defendant would be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
- Jurors agree unanimously on each aggravating circumstance used for the recommendation of death (Florida is the only state that does not require this).
Both bills were referred to committees but failed to advance this session. During Catholic Days at the Capitol, more than 300 Catholics made a great deal of progress in educating lawmakers about the need for this legislation, and supporters are hopeful it will pass in the next legislative session.
Until the day our state ends its use of capital punishment, requiring a jury’s unanimous recommendation for a sentence of death will encourage thoughtful deliberation and ensure a more reliable and fair sentencing process. Let us make justice our aim (cf. Isaiah 1:17).
This article was featured in CMN’s August 2014 newsletter.