Florida is out of step with the rest of the country when it comes to the death penalty, and it’s an embarrassment for our state.
We have the highest number of wrongful death row convictions.
Last year our death penalty was twice struck down as unconstitutional, which has led to many cases being on hold for years.
Because Florida sentenced people to death under an unconstitutional statute that did not require a unanimous jury vote, the Florida Supreme Court has said over 150 death row inmates now are entitled to a new resentencing hearing.
Florida state attorneys have a decision to make regarding these cases: they can seek death again in these cases, or accept a life without parole sentence, which would still keep those previously sentenced to death behind bars.
Of these death row cases returning to court, over 25 of them are from Duval County.
I hope our newly elected prosecutor for Duval County, Melissa Nelson, will remain committed to pursuing smart criminal justice policy and not repeat the mistakes of the past in seeking death regardless of the consequences.
Since taking office, Nelson instituted a new review panel with the goal of ensuring greater deliberation in potential death penalty cases — including of mitigating evidence — before a decision is made to seek a death sentence.
Nelson and the review panel need to exercise restraint when considering how to proceed in these returning death row cases, for it would be a mistake to pursue a costly and uncertain death sentence in all these cases.
Doing so would waste a great deal of resources because of all the resentencing hearings that would have to take place and the time and preparation that go into them. Over 150 cases across Florida would surely cost the state millions of dollars.
As a community leader, I see the many needs our community has. Seeking death for someone who is already locked up for life is far from a priority. We need to invest back into our communities in ways that will lift people up and help prevent violence.
One place we need additional help is for services for victims of crime. The vast majority of murder cases aren’t capital cases, but with every murder case you have a grieving family who could use assistance with basics like counseling or funeral expenses. How could we spend millions on a few death cases when we aren’t yet doing a bare minimum for every crime victim?
If we were to go through all the trouble and expense of resentencing these cases, the death sentences secured likely only will cause further harm to victims’ families. Death sentences prolong the legal process with years of appeals. And given the rates at which death cases are reversed, there is still no certainty that an execution would ever be carried out.
The death penalty is an enormous burden for victims’ families – a life sentence allows them to move forward finally free from the justice system.
Instead of seeking the death penalty and incurring all the harms that come with it, Nelson has a chance to choose a better path. To do so would show great wisdom and a true commitment to making positive change in our community.
Rev. R.L. Gundy, pastor at Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, is the Florida State Director of African-American Ministers In Action and People For The American Way.