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Florida Voices
Time to debate the death penalty
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It defies logic that taking life honors life.

For the second year in a row, Florida has sent more convicted killers to death row than any other state.

And acting Palm Beach County State Attorney Peter Antonacci would like to send more. His office is now seeking the death penalty for all first-degree murder cases.

There were 22 new death penalty cases this year in Palm Beach County.

“You have a dead human being,” Antonacci told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He said that by not seeking the death penalty, “we have cheapened the value of human life.”

There are many ways we cheapen the value of human life. Sexism, racism, ageism, discrimination against gays, the disabled, atheists and others with different or no religious views are but a few examples.

A political and economic system that allows millions to go without food, shelter and health care is another.

As is a justice system that sanctions taxpayer-funded killings.

Killing is no more just when the government does it than when an individual does.

A life for a life is not justice. It is retribution.

That is not the purpose of our legal system.

What’s more, the death penalty does not deter people from killing, which proponents claim is its purpose. Our murder rate far exceeds that of many countries that have no death penalty.

The United States, China, the Congo, Saudi Arabia and Iran account for 85 percent of the world’s death-penalty executions. Many would argue that this isn’t the kind of human-rights company we want to be keeping.

Our justice system makes mistakes. If for no other reason, death should not be a penalty for any crime.

Not only does Florida lead the nation with 21 individuals sentenced to death this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, it’s also No. 1 for the number of death row inmates exonerated.

Just last month, the 24th inmate since 1973 was set free. At his third trial, a jury found Seth Penalver, who had been sentenced to death in 2000 for killing three people, not guilty after a five-month trial.

Three trials. Three results. The first resulted in a deadlock.

If that’s not enough evidence that our system is flawed, consider the case of Frank Lee Smith.

Cancer set him free from Florida’s death row after serving 14 years for a murder and rape he didn’t commit. The Innocence Project cleared Smith with DNA evidence 11 months after he died.

How many other innocent people have died behind bars? How many have we executed?

We will never know.

The lives of the innocent are the cost we pay for the lives of the guilty. It’s not worth the price.

When Gov. Rick Scott signed his first death warrant last year, he said implementing the death penalty is “not an enjoyable process.”

“It takes a toll on you. It’s something you really need to think about,” he said.“You’ve got to be very cautious about it. I’ve prayed a lot about it. And it’s the law of the land.”

Actually, it’s the law in 33 states. Florida was the first state to reintroduce the death penalty after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all death penalty laws in 1972.

Laws are made to be changed. Florida can lead the way in another direction.

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasalinda, D-Tallahassee, filed a bill last year to abolish the death penalty. It died in committee but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Isn’t it time that we at least had a debate?

“Life without parole is a sensible alternative to the death penalty,” said Rehwinkel Vasalinda. “It is much less expensive to keep a criminal in prison for life without parole than it is for the state to execute them. A sentence of life in prison without parole allows mistakes to be corrected or new evidence to come to light. That would increase faith and fairness in our justice system.”

So would a state that doesn’t kill to punish killers.

Rhonda Swan is an editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post and author of Dancing to the Rhythm of My Soul: A Sister’s Guide for Transforming Madness into Gladness. She can be reached at rswan@floridavoices.com.

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