A 'Lead Cocktail' Or Old Sparky Not A Laughing Matter

Every time Florida starts to fade from the national spotlight, somebody like Brad Drake comes along and gets everybody laughing at us again.

Drake is the state representative who is sponsoring a bill to give death row inmates the choice between the electric chair or a firing squad — “a lead cocktail,” in Drake’s words.

Not even Clint Eastwood could say the phrase, “lead cocktail,” with a straight face, but Drake claims to be serious. He says he’s frustrated by the questions about whether lethal injection, Florida’s current method of execution, is actually painless.

“I say let’s end the debate,” Drake said in a prepared statement. “We still have Old Sparky. And if that doesn’t suit the criminal, then we will provide them a .45-caliber lead cocktail instead.”

Drake is a Republican and proud Baptist from the Panhandle community of Eucheeanna. At the tender age of 36, he has already been named one of the World’s Worst Humans by TV commentator Keith Olbermann.

For supporters of the death penalty, the first problem with Drake’s proposed legislation is that it will generate so many court challenges as to effectively halt all executions in Florida. The second problem with the idea is his lack of originality.

If you want grisly executions, come up with something fresh. Drake’s Web page says he’s a NASCAR fan, so why not make use of the speedway at Daytona? Strap the doomed inmate to the track and let Jeff Gordon run him over for a hundred laps.

Florida’s electric chair was retired because the chair malfunctioned, causing some ghastly moments in the death chamber. Firing squads lost favor in this country for the same reason — they were messy and not always instantaneous.

Inefficiency of an execution method has been viewed by some courts as “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is barred by the U.S. Constitution.

Says Drake: “Don’t tell me I have to be sympathetic and humane to people who do something so heinous that a judge orders them to be executed.”

You can see why death penalty opponents are secretly elated to have this guy spouting off. All that’s missing is flecks of spittle on his lips.

Back in 1983, when Drake was in elementary school, I watched a man named Robert Austin Sullivan put to death in Florida’s electric chair. Old Sparky worked fine that day, but it was a gothic ceremony that unsettled witnesses and journalists.

Some saw smoke rise from one of Sullivan’s legs. I didn’t, probably because I was watching his hooded face.

Sullivan had been convicted in the brutal robbery-murder of a Howard Johnson’s manager in Miami. If the victim had been a member of my family, I would have been in the front row of the death chamber to watch Sullivan die.

Capital punishment doesn’t deter anybody else from committing murder, but that was never the point. I would have no problem with the death penalty if it was administered consistently, regardless of race, and if the guilt of the condemned was a certainty.

Unfortunately, that isn’t how it works. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 115 condemned inmates have been exonerated in this country since 1973. Seventeen were freed when DNA evidence proved their innocence (after they’d served a combined 209 years in prison).

One man, Frank Lee Smith, died on Florida’s death row after serving 14 years for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. DNA testing cleared his name, too late.

Numerous studies show that blacks are more likely than whites to receive a death sentence for similar crimes. Two of the most famously wronged death row inmates were Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, who were ultimately pardoned after the late Miami Herald reporter Gene Miller punched holes in the double-murder case against them in the Panhandle.

A commonly heard complaint is that it takes too long to have somebody executed, often more than a decade. The appeals process is slow and grueling for victims’ families, but it has saved persons who are indisputably innocent from the death chamber. A good Christian like Drake ought to be grateful for that.

Taxpayers already spend a fortune on legal battles before an inmate is actually executed. Getting the hated serial killer Ted Bundy from his cell to Old Sparky cost the state an estimated $5 million. It would have been much cheaper to lock him up and throw away the key.

Given past miscues, the odds of conducting a flawless firing squad in Florida would appear to be shaky, unless the shooters were allowed to stand 5 feet from their target. There surely would be no shortage of volunteers, and no shortage of lawsuits.

Drake says he got his idea for the “lead cocktail” from lunchtime chatter at a neighborhood Waffle House. Perhaps he should have gone to the IHOP.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

(c) 2011, The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.


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Danziger Draws

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City and Vermont. He is a long time cartoonist for The Rutland Herald and is represented by Counterpoint Syndicate. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

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