St. Petersburg Times

April 25, 2004


When the Florida Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment to protect the death penalty, the measure had the incidental effect of allowing people to be executed for crimes they committed at the age of 16. Sponsors said they didn’t want to do that and promised corrective legislation. That was three years ago. Voters ratified the constitutional amendment a year later. The bill that was promised has yet to pass.

Missouri’s attorney general, meanwhile, has cited Florida’s retrograde action in a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a Missouri law that similarly allows the execution of 16- and 17-year olds.

Missouri’s own Supreme Court threw out that law on the premise that a national consensus has evolved against the execution of juveniles. Half the death penalty states as well as the federal government exempt juveniles. (The New Hampshire Legislature has voted to make that the 20th state to do that, but the governor has said he will veto the bill.) Since 1976, only 7 states have actually executed prisoners who were juveniles when they committed their crimes.

But Missouri’s attorney general says what Florida voters did in 2002 helps prove that the Missouri court misread the national mood.

That is the wrong interpretation of what Florida did. The Legislature all but ignored the age question in its hysterical haste to do something - anything - to stop the Florida Supreme Court from barring the use of the electric chair or even shutting down the death penalty altogether. The Legislature itself retired the electric chair. Now, it needs to keep the promise that was made.

The Florida Senate appears willing to pass SB 224, by Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, and others, which sets 18 as the minimum age, though it has been approved by only 1 of the 2 committees to which it was referred. In the House, 2 committees approved a companion bill, HB 63, after it was amended to set the minimum age at 17, but there is still another committee to go and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd is not thought to be fond of the bill. Time is running out.

But if Byrd were to think more deeply about it, he might see the underlying principle of that bill in the same light as his insistence that a minor’s parents should be notified before she has an abortion. The comparison is not an original thought with us; it’s the view of James A. Smith Jr., editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, in Thursday’s edition.

“In both matters,” he wrote, “the principle is the same. The law should recognize that minors must be treated differently (as it does in other laws related to minors). In the case of minors seeking abortions, at the very least, parents must be informed about such an important and life-changing medical procedure - no matter how politically correct abortion is. In the case of capital punishment, the law should recognize the difference of minors’ moral culpability - no matter how politically incorrect it may be to shield minors from the death penalty.” Executing minors, Smith said, “cannot be considered just.”


St. Petersburg Times