Death Penalty Amendment up for Vote in Florida

Florida's electric chair is history. But a proposed constitutional amendment originally meant to preserve its use will be put before voters next month to reinforce the state's commitment to capital punishment.

Amendment 1 would write the death penalty into the Florida Constitution — it's currently permitted by state law — and change the constitution's prohibition against "cruel or unusual'' punishments to "cruel and unusual.'' That wording would replicate the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

Proponents say the proposal would reduce the number of issues condemned prisoners can raise in their appeals.

"It's important that the people of Florida make a statement regarding capital punishment as a legitimate punishment for a certain group of individuals,'' said state Sen. Lock Burt, who chairs the Commission on Capital Cases.

The amendment was originally intended as a way to protect the electric chair from allegations that it was cruel — a moot point since the state began using lethal injection two years ago.

But opponents say the lengthy amendment's only effect would be to allow the execution of 16 year olds. Currently, a state Supreme Court ruling bans the execution of murderers who were younger than 17 when they killed. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling allows the execution of 16-year-old killers.

By allowing young killers to be executed, the measure will "put Florida out of the mainstream of most of the states of this country,'' said Randall Berg, a lawyer for the Florida Justice Institute.

"The amendment is really not necessary,'' he said. "It doesn't fix anything.''

Burt said it's unlikely 16 year olds will be executed.

"I don't think that's a real issue,'' he said. "That situation doesn't come up all that often.''

Florida voters overwhelmingly passed an identical measure in 1998 but the state Supreme Court threw it out two years later, saying the way the Legislature described the provision on the ballot was misleading and deceptive.

Legislators tried to make sure that doesn't happen this time by putting on the ballot a summary followed by the amendment's entire 714-word text.

If the amendment is approved, Florida won't be the first state to have the death penalty in its state constitution — Massachusetts and Oregon already do.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, questioned the push to add the amendment now because in recent years more than 100 former death row inmates nationwide have been freed because, with new DNA technology or other evidence, their innocence was proven or their guilt was cast into doubt.

"The trend on the death penalty around the country has been to step back and examine it more closely because of problems and in some states to actually have a moratorium,'' Dieter said.

Although 22 states with capital punishment allow the execution of juveniles, only seven have actually executed juveniles in the last 30 years, according to Stephen Harper, with the Juvenile Death Penalty Initiative.

Florida is one of eight states that have teen killers on death row but have not executed any.