Daytona Beach News-Journal

April 29, 2004


Florida doesn’t execute children anymore. It hasn’t in 50 years, but nothing in the law says it can’t. Currently the law allows Florida juries to sentence 16-year-olds to death. Three inmates currently on Florida’s death row were 17 when the murders were committed for which they’re condemned. On Tuesday, the state Senate decided it can no longer countenance the statute’s duplicity, reasoning that other Florida laws recognize people under age 18 as children. Victor Crist, the Tampa Republican who sponsored SB 224, is generally a hard-liner for the death penalty. But he said the state judges children unfairly when it assumes only in criminal cases that they have an adult’s maturity to discern right from wrong. The bill would set the minimum age for execution at 18, removing Florida from the barbarous ranks of 20 states that sanction the death penalty for juveniles. Florida would be the third state in two years to do so.

Doubtless Crist and other right-wing legislators supporting the bill are also motivated by another less altruistic concern. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon review a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that executing youths offends the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Because the high court ended the execution of mentally retarded inmates in a decision two years ago, observers think the court will be similarly inclined to uphold the Missouri opinion. Florida legislators are obviously attempting to pre-empt an attack on this state’s death penalty law by removing the potentially objectionable provision for juvenile execution.

But the question remaining this week is whether House Speaker Johnnie Byrd will allow a vote on the measure in the lower chamber. Legislation to the same effect was introduced in each of the past five years but got no traction in the more conservative House. Byrd remains strongly opposed. However, the companion bill to SB 224 recently received a unanimous favorable vote in the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee. Byrd said early this week he may let members “vote their conscience” on it. That he should do, and with priority, regardless of the underlying motivations of death penalty advocates.

Of the 20 states that allow the execution of people who committed capital crimes when they were under 18, seven have carried out juvenile executions since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. Of the nearly two dozen executions, half were in Texas. Seventy-three juveniles remain on the nation’s death rows. In the 1980s, the high court itself abolished the death penalty for anyone 15 or younger.

Most industrialized nations have abolished the death penalty altogether, and that leaves the United States in miserable company. But this nation stands alone in the world in its continued sanction of juvenile execution.

Florida at least could join the ranks of the civilized world by abolishing the death penalty for offenders under 18. Byrd should call the vote on HB 63.


Daytona Beach News-Journal