Palm Beach Post

April 21, 2004


A small shaft of enlightenment has cut into the dark thinking in Florida about capital punishment.

2 committees in Tallahassee have approved legislation that would ban the death penalty for people who are under 18 years of age when they commit a capital crime. Last week, the proposal cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee 7-0 and the House Public Safety Committee 17-1.

As with almost all other matters that relate to the death penalty, Florida is behind the national curve. Thirty-one states either prohibit execution of those who were minors at the time of their crime — South Dakota and Wyoming are the most recent additions — or ban capital punishment. The Supreme Court has made it unconstitutional to execute those who were 16, and this fall, the justices will hear arguments in a case from Missouri that could lead to the court expanding the ban to include all minors.

One reason for changing attitudes in Florida is the record of killing by very young children. Even the ardently pro-death penalty political leadership in Tallahassee didn’t want the bad publicity that might attend a jury’s recommendation of death for someone who was too young to drive. Cover for the Legislature comes from Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist and Florida Department of Law Enforcement Director Guy Tunnell, who support the death penalty but also support the legislation, which would allow a sentence of life without parole.

A sign of national sentiment came when a jury refused to hand down a death sentence for Lee Malvo, the younger member of the Washington, D.C.-area sniper pair. He killed an FBI agent in Virginia, where most people favor capital punishment. That’s why Attorney General John Ashcroft wanted the first sniper trial held there.

Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, seems supportive. The problem seems to be House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, who doesn’t want to seem soft on crime in his campaign for the U.S. Senate. There’s soft, though, and then there’s barbaric.


Palm Beach Post