Lakeland Ledger

April 22, 2004


The Florida Legislature has always been strong on capital punishment and has recoiled against any limitations imposed by the courts. At the same time, it has failed to clarify a key question relating to the death penalty:

How young is too young when sentencing a killer to death?

Oddly, the Legislature has avoided that question. The result has been that the courts have been forced to step in. As it stands now, a person cannot be sentenced to death if he/she was younger than 17 when the crime was committed. It’s possible that further litigation may set the age higher.

Finally, the Legislature seems ready to make that decision as a matter of law rather than judicial interpretation. A bill is making its way through both the House and Senate to set the minimum age at 18. It passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee by an 8-0 vote last week and the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee by a 17-1 margin.

18 makes more sense than anything else. It’s the age of adulthood. An 18-year-old has the right to do anything any other adult can do other than buy or consume an alcoholic beverage. It’s also the traditional age when a person finishes public schooling, and gets a job or enrolls in higher education.

Juries have been reluctant to sentence younger defendants to death, but it has happened infrequently. Even in the most aggravated cases — the Washington sniper case comes to mind -juries tend to show some mercy to defendants who were younger than 18 when their crimes were committed.

The bill probably will pass before the session ends next week, assuming House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, allows it to come to the floor. Byrd is running for the U.S. Senate as a hard-line conservative, and he might be reluctant to let the bill pass for fear of appearing to be soft on crime. Plenty of other law-and-order conservatives support the bill, though, so Byrd needn’t fear any repercussions if he joins them.


Lakeland Ledger