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Sunday, October 23, 2016

The execution of Thomas Knight last week is a textbook case for why Florida’s dysfunctional death penalty should be scrapped.

Here was a man whose guilt was never in doubt, whose crimes were cold-blooded, whose attitude remained remorseless and often defiant — yet the system took nearly 40 years to close the book.

In South Florida, Knight will be remembered for abducting and killing a Bay Harbor Islands couple, Sydney and Lillian Gans, in 1974. After a frantic manhunt, he was found hiding in the mud with the rifle used in the crime, and $50,000 cash that he’d forced Gans to withdraw from a bank.

Ironically, Knight wasn’t executed for those murders. In 1980 he fatally stabbed prison guard Richard Burke with a sharpened spoon, and it was that homicide that finally delivered him to the death chamber for a lethal injection.

His case had dragged on so long that last year a federal appeals court lamented: “To learn about the gridlock and inefficiency of death penalty litigation, look no further than this appeal.”

The daughter of Sydney and Lillian Gans didn’t attend Knight’s execution because of poor health. At 73, she is now older than her parents were when they were slain.

For decades, the dogged maneuvering and serial delays in capital cases have frustrated prosecutors and police, and brought more misery to the victims’ relatives. There is no workable solution except to repeal the death penalty and replace it with mandatory life sentences.

Because appealing a capital case involves both state and federal courts, it can’t simply be expedited by legislation. And because people do get wrongly convicted — as organizations such as the Innocence Project have demonstrated — judges must be cautious and thorough.

Convicted of a rape and murder in 1986, Florida Death Row inmate Frankie Lee Smith was exonerated by DNA evidence in December 2000. It was too late. Smith had died of cancer 11 months earlier in prison.

For obvious reasons, defense lawyers in death cases strategize to stall, stall and then stall some more. Their job is to keep their clients alive as long as possible.

Florida fought 10 years to execute the notorious Ted Bundy, at a cost to taxpayers of about $5 million. There’s no calculation as to how much was spent litigating the case of Thomas Knight, who received his first death sentence in 1976, but you can be certain it was a fortune.

Set aside for a moment the moral and religious objections to capital punishment, and the questions about its disproportionate application to minorities. Consider the statute strictly as an expensive, endless drain of legal resources.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Florida has averaged slightly more than two executions a year while adding about 12 new residents annually to Death Row. You can do the dismal math in your head.

Today 396 men and five women live on Florida’s Death Row, and most (if not all) have attorneys working on appeals. The pace could never be described as swift.

Knight was no anomaly; many capital cases have been slogging along since the mid-1970s.

  • disqus_ivSI3ByGmh

    Carl brings up good points. Here are some other to consider.

    1. The Death Penalty as a deterrent. This is a joke for two reasons. One is as Carl stated in the article. Justice is not swift, especially when someone’s life is on the line. All appeals need to be covered to ensure that there was no exculpatory reason, and that the execution was not decided on for the wrong reason. However, a second problem with death penalty as a deterrent – we execute in privately, with only an invited group of observers. Most of these observers are either relatives of the victim, relatives of the prisoner, or the press. There is no “lesson” learned because there is no lesson witnessed. I am not calling for the death penalty to be administered in a public square by hanging or beheading. They have historically served more as spectacle than as deterrent.
    2. Appeals not based on denial of guilt. Sorry, but this one really bothers me when the courts have to base an appeal not on denial of guilt, but a procedural error, like “My lawyer didn’t represent me properly.” or, “Mrs. Jones in third grade yelled at me, so that upset me and I remembered that when I bashed the guy’s head in.” or some other bogus excuse.

    • daniel bostdorf

      Nice thoughts…

  • daniel bostdorf

    I fully agree with the articles title.
    And I hope that those who post here respect each others opinion free from angry rants, troll like off topic nonsense, and bullying and name calling….this issue brings out both the best and worst behavior in people when posting online…I am confientdent Nationa Memo editors have been alerted to the potential for posting abuse because I have emailed them to be extra vigilant.

    I believ that the fundamental point of Hiaasen’s of article should apply to every state in this country by federal law:

    “For decades, the dogged maneuvering and serial delays in capital cases have frustrated prosecutors and police, and brought more misery to the victims’ relatives. There is no workable solution except to repeal the death penalty and replace it with mandatory life sentences.”

    I have been advocating mandatory life sentences and abolishing the death penalty since I was 18 years old. It comes from my fundamental religious (Buddist/Unitarian) belief that intentionally killing a human being by court or government decree is wrong.

    I define a human being as having gone through the birth process coming out of the mothers womb. This also includes war as I was an am a “conscientious objector” by legal status. It does not matter the circumstances. The ends never justifies the means. I also do not believe in “justifiable homicide.”

    Seeking revenge is an act of animal anger, not human compassion.

    Here are 10 specific reasons from Death Penalty Focus :

    1) Executions are carried out at staggering cost to taxpayers.
    It costs far more to execute a person than to keep him or her in prison for life. A 2011 study found that California has spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since it was reinstated in 1978 and that death penalty trials are 20 times more expensive than trials seeking a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. California currently spends $184 million on the death penalty each year and is on track to spend $1 billion in the next five years.

    2) There is no credible evidence that capital punishment deters crime.
    Scientific studies have consistently failed to demonstrate that executions deter people from committing crime anymore than long prison sentences. Moreover, states without the death penalty have much lower murder rates. The South accounts for 80% of US executions and has the highest regional murder rate.

    3) Innocent people have been convicted and executed.
    The wrongful execution of an innocent person is an injustice that can never be rectified. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 142 men and women have been released from Death Row nationally….some only minutes away from execution. Moreover, in the past two years evidence has come to light which indicates that four men may have been wrongfully EXECUTED in recent years for crimes they did not commit. This error rate is simply appalling, and completely unacceptable, when we are talking about life and death.

    4) Race plays a role in determining who lives and who dies.
    The race of the victim and the race of the defendant in capital cases are major factors in determining who is sentenced to die in this country. In 1990 a report from the General Accounting Office concluded that “in 82 percent of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e. those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.”

    5) The death penalty is applied at random.
    Politics, quality of legal counsel and the jurisdiction where a crime is committed are more often the determining factors in a death penalty case than the facts of the crime itself. The death penalty is a lethal lottery: of the 22,000 homicides committed every year approximately 100 people or less are sentenced to death.

    6) Capital punishment goes against almost every religion.
    Although isolated passages of religious scripture have been quoted in support of the death penalty, almost all religious groups in the United States regard executions as immoral.

    7) The USA is keeping company with notorious human rights abusers.
    The vast majority of countries in Western Europe, North America and South America — more than 140 nations worldwide — have abandoned capital punishment in law or in practice. The United States remains in the same company as Iraq, Iran and China as one of the major advocates and users of capital punishment.

    8) Millions currently spent on the death penalty could be used to assist the families of murder victims.
    Many family members who have lost love ones to murder feel that the death penalty will not heal their wounds nor will it end their pain; the extended process prior to executions can prolong the agony experienced by the family. Funds now being used for the costly process of executions could be used to help families put their lives back together through counseling, restitution, crime victim hotlines, and other services addressing their needs.

    9) Bad Lawyers are a Persistent Problem in Capital Cases
    Perhaps the most important factor in determining whether a defendant will receive the death penalty is the quality of the representation he or she is provided. Almost all defendants in capital cases cannot afford their own attorneys. In many cases, the appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid, or lacking the trial experience required for death penalty cases. There have even been instances in which lawyers appointed to a death case were so inexperienced that they were completely unprepared for the sentencing phase of the trial. Other appointed attorneys have slept through parts of the trial, or arrived at the court under the influence of alcohol.

    10) Life Without Parole is a Sensible Alternative to the Death Penalty 
In every state that retains the death penalty, jurors have the option of sentencing convicted capital murderers to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The sentence is cheaper to tax-payers and keeps violent offenders off the streets for good. Unlike the death penalty, a sentence of Life Without Parole also allows mistakes to be corrected. There are currently over 3,300 people in California who have received this alternative sentence, which also has a more limited appeals process last approximately 3 years. According to the California Governor’s Office, only seven people sentenced to life without parole have been released since the state provided for this option in 1977, and this occurred because they were able to prove their innocence.
    As these wise people so eloquently and simply state:

    “With every cell of my being, and with every fiber of my memory, I oppose the death penalty in all forms…. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an Angel of Death.” – Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1986.

    “Our government… teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”
    — Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis in “Olmstead vs. United States”

    “Do I need to argue to Your Honor that cruelty only breeds cruelty? That hatred only causes hatred; that if there is any way to soften this human heart which is hard enough at its best, if there is any way to kill evil and hatred and all that goes with it, it is not through evil and hatred and cruelty; it is through charity, and love, and understanding?….I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all. I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side.” ― Clarence Darrow, from his closing argument in the 1924 Leopold and Loeb ‘thrill murder’ case.

  • LasloPratt

    Two thoughts:

    1) There are indeed some people who really do deserve to die. It does not follow, however, that we deserve to kill them.

    2) The death penalty is an end in itself. There are any number of practical and moral arguments against it. But they can’t trump the simple visceral fact that too many of the citizens of this nation have an inordinate fondness for the idea of other people dying.

  • leadvillexp

    The death penalty. How do we give justice? We make mistakes. It has been proven that even the witness to a crime may make a mistake and identify the wrong person. If it can be proven beyond the shadow of a dought maybe we can kill the person. I find that shadow very big. A better idea is a solitary confinement prison for these people. It confines them and makes them isolated form people while at the same time allows them lawyers. If they are wrongly incarcerated it allows fo a chance to prove their innocence. I am not against executing a person that can be proven to be guilty. It is just that there are so few cases that can be done without a shadow of a dought, We need to getrid of emotion and use logic.

  • Allan Richardson

    Another inequity in the death penalty is that politically ambitious police and prosecutors have a nearly risk free method of arousing support among the bloodthirsty voters: find SOMEONE to convict of every murder, never mind if it is the actual criminal or not, as long as it is a poor or minority person who has no funds for a private high powered attorney. Incidentally, this provides any “pillar of the community” who wishes to kill someone with the perfect strategy: set up a poor person, such as by hiring a handyman, to take the fall for the crime.

    I would propose the following amendment to capital punishment law, IF we wish to keep it:every person in the chain of authority has a duty to seek the truth and avoid unjust conviction even more than to avoid unjust acquittal; a juror who votes for conviction and then for death; a prosecutor who seeks the death penalty; a defense attorney who neglects his or her duty; a judge who upholds it upon appeal; and a governor who refuses clemency and allows an execution; all would be subject to prosecution for murder IF the execution is carried out, and THEN anyone presents clear and convincing evidence of a wrongful conviction and innocence. In other words, prosecutors, attorneys, judges, and EVEN GOVERNORS should consider that if they are WRONG, they put their OWN LIVES in jeopardy.

    I do not expect such a law to be passed in any state, but just the “thought experiment” of CONSIDERING the idea philosophically brings out the great fallacy of trying to administer capital punishment JUSTLY in all cases. Those who call for quick executions seem to have the attitude of not CARING whether an innocent person is ever executed, or they REFUSE TO BELIEVE that the human institution of government can be fallible in deciding life or death (and many of the same voters and political leaders consider the same institution is NOT to be trusted with other decisions).

    And indeed, those governments which LOVE capital punishment the most are those which impose totalitarian (communist, fascist, Islamic radical, or medieval Catholic) thought control, and do not attribute human rights to the average or poor person, and those which are set up hastily in the aftermath of revolutionary anarchy (such as the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution), because their leaders have no interest in preventing erroneous executions; they care only about maintaining their power. A democracy should have more respect for the right to life of any person unjustly convicted, and this is the reason that other advanced democracies (which, ironically, were inspired by OUR form of government) have dropped the death penalty. Our nation, which taught governmental respect for human rights, is the only democracy which still kills criminals. And occasionally innocent people.

  • Fiji’s Best

    Among others, Darwin used Adam Smith’s work on morals, conduct, and character to develop his theories regarding biological evolution.

  • dudleysharp

    Carl is quite odd.

    As he well knows, Florida passed legislation, last session, to lower
    appellate time to 10 years, prior to execution.

    Virginia executes within 7.1 years, on average, prior to execution and has
    executed 70% of her death row murderers (110 executions) since 1976.

    So we know it can be and should be done.

    86% Death Penalty Support: Highest Ever – April 2013
    95% of Murder
    Victim’s Family Members Support Death Penalty

    Dudley Sharp

  • dudleysharp


    The Innocent Frauds: Standard Anti Death Penalty Strategy


    OF COURSE THE DEATH PENALTY DETERS: A review of the debate
    99.7% of murderers tell us “Give me life, not execution”

    Saving Costs with The Death Penalty

    The Death Penalty: Fair & Just

    1994-2013: The Real Reasons Death Penalties & Executions Fell