Why Florida Loves the Death Penalty

A brief history of Florida's bizarre obsession with killing convicts.

Feb 5 2016, 6:00pm

In Florida, there's no shortage of things that can kill you. It's the lightning-strike and shark-bite capital, as the Orlando Sentinel helpfully dubbed it. Also, alligators. But leaving natural phenomena aside, Florida is also one of the most execution-friendly destinations in America.

The Sunshine State has 389 death row inmates—more than any other besides California, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Alarmingly, Florida also leads the nation with 26 death row exonerations. "If you add it all together, Florida's the worst of the worst," when it comes to capital punishment, says Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Meanwhile, American support for the death penalty is near a 40-year low, according to a Pew Research poll conducted last spring. The fact that DNA evidence can exonerate people who were long ago falsely convicted has inspired many to doubt the efficacy of the criminal justice system, and laws around the country are changing to mirror that shift in public opinion. In January, the Supreme Court—which still leans in favor of the death penalty in the abstract—deemed Florida's execution sentencing protocol unconstitutional.

But rather than take the death penalty off the books, politicians in Florida are currently arguing over new justifications they might use for killing convicts. Which begs the question of why, in a swing state that's often considered a barometer for the the rest of the country, officials are so dead-set on preserving capital punishment.

Bob Dekle, a law professor at the University of Florida, says the death penalty has been a part of the state's culture as long as he can remember. First it was hangings, and then, in 1923, it was the electric chair. Dekle's granddaddy was a sheriff in Union County in northern Florida back around the time of World War I, when the state's executions were still carried out at the local level. The old man threw the switch on an inmate himself once, a duty Dekle says grandpa didn't particularly enjoy. But that was local custom—at least until 1941, when local sheriffs were replaced by black-hooded executioners.

Things carried on that way until 1972, when Supreme Court justices, in a 5–4 decision, said that the death penalty was cruel and unusual—and often had a racial bias. Florida was the first state to pass a new law in hopes of resuming executions later that year, but a national moratorium remained in place until the Supreme Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision. State officials were anxious to resume capital punishment, reflecting a sense of vigilante justice that permeates the Deep South, as well as some uniquely Floridian sensibilities.

"There's always been a sense in Florida that if you feel you have been victimized, you have an obligation to protect your honor by avenging what has taken place," Robert Snyder, a professor of American Studies at the University of South Florida, once told the Tampa Bay Times. "A sort of bestial spirit resides deep within the heart of people in Florida."

That bestial spirit produced a penal code that has been notoriously lax when it comes to executions. In most states, juries have to unanimously agree on aggravating factors to recommend a defendant be put to death. Florida is one of just two states where a simple majority is sufficient, and it's one of just three where judges can go rogue and take the execution route even if a jury doesn't call for it.

Suffice it to say Florida's death row tends to be pretty packed.

On May 25, 1979, a 30-year-old named John Spenkelink was the first person sent to Old Sparky once it got fired up again. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Spenkelink, who was convicted for murdering his roommate, was given two shots of whiskey before taking his seat in the chair. Dozens of men—and two women—were sent to die there in the coming decades. In fact, the frequency with which people were executed became a point of civic pride; in 1986, Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez ran for governor with the campaign promise that Florida's electric bill would go up if he were elected.

By the late 1990s, however, a number of malfunctions raised questions about whether or not the electric chair constituted cruel and unusual punishment. In March 1997, the state tried to electrocute Pedro Medina, but his head basically caught on fire as witnesses gasped for air. An official turned off the chair while Medina, who was mentally ill and possibly innocent, was still breathing.

Still, politicians grasped at straws, trying to justify the death penalty. State Senator Ginny Brown-Waite, who witnessed a particularly gruesome electrocution in 1999, said that the prisoner's nosebleed formed the sign of a cross on his shirt, which she suggested might be a sign from God that the execution was divinely mandated.

In 2000, Florida at least began granting prisoners the choice between Old Sparky and lethal injection; only one man has requested the chair since.

On January 7, Florida carried out the first execution in America this year. But on Tuesday, the State Supreme Court postponed the next one as lawmakers try to appease justices in Washington. The conversation will likely not address the racial issues brought up in the 1970s Supreme Court cases, although the degree to which the death penalty is imposed along those lines remains startling. (A January report authored by a professor at University of North Carolina found that no white person has ever been sentenced to death for killing a black person in Florida.)

For his part, Dekle—who has personally witnessed three executions in Florida—says other states passed stricter death penalty laws when capital punishment was reinstated decades ago specifically to discourage the Supreme Court from striking them down again. 43 Florida death row inmates have filed direct appeals and might see their sentences reduced to life in prison as a result of the January ruling.

"It's a mess that could have been avoided if the Supreme Court had 40 years ago said, 'Wait a minute, this ain't right," Dekle says of the troubled Florida law. "Eventually, they're gonna hammer out a new mechanism for imposing the death penalty, and quite likely people on death row are gonna get new sentencing hearings. And maybe 40 years from now, the Supreme Court will decide that's unconstitutional too."

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