More prisoners are exonerated from Florida’s death row than anywhere else in America

By: - June 4, 2019 7:00 am

Clifford Williams, 76, (left) was exonerated this year after 42 years behind bars. His nephew Nathan Myers (right) was also exonerated. Action News Jax screen shot

Florida has more exonerations of death row inmates than any other state in the country – in fact, there’s been one exoneration of a death row prisoner for every three Florida executions over the past four decades.

Many people working in the criminal justice arena say that stark fact shows the system deserves a serious review.

In March, for example, the state released Clifford Williams Jr., who was originally sentenced to death and spent 42 years behind bars for a crime prosecutors now say he didn’t commit. His nephew was also exonerated (The Florida Supreme Court overturned his death sentence by a single vote, in a 4-to-3 decision, back in 1980, effectively giving him life in prison instead).

After his release, the 76-year-old Williams earned a new ranking: He is the 29th person to be exonerated from Florida’s death row since the 1970s.

“Getting it right needs to be more important than just getting it done,” says Mark Elliott, executive director with Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “It’s a failed, broken system. And for me, if I supported the death penalty and there’s one innocent person on death row, that would end my support right there.”

In other states that have ended the death penalty, governors expressed concern about the state killing someone who may be proven innocent, especially with advances in DNA evidence.

“There are a number of issues and problems in Florida,” says Stephen Harper, a professor at Florida International University who runs a legal clinic for death penalty cases. “One is that prosecutors have pretty much unfettered discretion as to when to seek death and when not to seek death. And the defense lawyering in Florida is not what it should be.”

Fewer states still executing people

These days, Florida finds itself among a handful of states still using the death penalty.

Last year, for example, Florida was one of only eight states that executed a death row inmate. So far this year, Florida is one of only five states to do so. (The others are Alabama, Texas, Tennessee and Georgia). That’s despite the fact that the majority of states (29) still have the death penalty on their books.

Last week, New Hampshire became the 21st state to repeal capital punishment. Analysts say that in reality, the death penalty only really exists now in the deep South and parts of the Midwest.

The number of executions has dropped by 75 percent in the U.S. since 1999, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“When we look at who is conducting executions in the last six to seven years, it’s almost always the same group of states,” Dunham says. “We’re looking at a geographically narrow part of the country that is carrying these out.”

Republican-led Legislatures in Wyoming and Utah recently tried to end the death penalty in their states, but came up short.

Florida has 340 people on death row – the second highest in the country. Only California has more.

And the legal fate of many Florida death row inmates is now in question. Criminal sentences for more than 100 of Florida’s death row inmates are up for review after major court decisions about the state’s capital sentencing statute in both the U.S. Supreme and Florida Supreme Courts (more on that later).

The state’s moral choice

While there hasn’t been much recent polling of the issue statewide, those who advocate to get rid of the death penalty cite a 2016 study of 500 Floridians conducted by a University of Santa Cruz professor that showed a strong majority (57%-43%) favored life imprisonment without parole over a death sentence.

While the public’s views may have gone south on the death penalty in recent years, there has been no movement in the Florida Legislature, despite attempts by some Democrats.

Democratic Reps. Joseph Geller and Dotie Joseph from South Florida were the primary sponsors of a bill in the Florida House this spring to end Florida’s death penalty. Democrat Sen. Gary Farmer from Fort Lauderdale sponsored it the Senate. Neither received a hearing in any committee.

Rep. Joseph pointed to the reality of systemic racism in criminal justice as one reason to stop executing people.

“Our criminal justice system is fallible and does not adequately mitigate against structural racism, which leads to people of color being disproportionately charged, convicted and sentenced to death,” she said, citing a 2017 Amnesty International study that says that 142 nations around the world no longer practice capital punishment.

During last summer’s battle for the Democratic nomination for Florida governor, Orlando businessman Chris King made headlines when he called for an end to the death penalty, a stance none of his opponents were willing to take (gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum said he would suspend and review executions).

“I oppose it because we often get it wrong,” King wrote the Phoenix in an email. “I oppose it because it is disproportionately used against minority communities. I oppose it because it has not proven to be a deterrent to violent crime. I oppose it because our state spends tens of millions of dollars in pursuing the death penalty through the legal system that could be better used in meaningful criminal justice reform. I oppose it because I believe the stronger punishment to heinous crimes is life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis and many members of the Republican-led Legislature are supporters.

“I think we do a pretty thorough effort in giving everyone every single legal possibility to be exonerated, but there are heinous crimes that have to have some type of ultimate penalty, and the death penalty is administered in Florida in a humane way,” says Ocala Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley.

But the high number of Florida prisoner exonerations, he says, does give him pause.

“We certainly would rather (have) a guilty person go free than an innocent person be falsely penalized,” he says, “including the death penalty.”

Vengeance for families and victims

While the need for vengeance may not be attractive, it’s also very real for those whose lives were shattered by a killer.

Take the case of Bobby Joe Long, executed two weeks ago. Though charged with just one murder, he claimed to have killed 10 women and raped dozens of others in the 1980s in the Tampa area, earning him 28 life sentences as well as a death sentence. Long sat on death row for three decades. Long was the 98th person killed in Florida since 1976, when America resumed the death penalty.

Long killed Lisa Rich’s cousin, Kim Swann. After the execution, Rich said victims’ families “suffered tremendously” and thanked DeSantis for signing Long’s death warrant. “This isn’t going to bring any of our loved ones back, but it’s gonna give us closure,” WTVT-Fox 13 reported.

That catharsis doesn’t always come, even after the state kills a murderer, says Ingrid Delgado with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“We hear from our victim family members who do expect an execution to give them some sort of closure, and it’s not there,” she says.

A faulty process

Supporters of capital punishment complain that it shouldn’t take decades to put someone to death after the court imposes the ultimate punishment. Opponents argue the state needs to take more time to avoid killing an innocent person.

They cite the fact that Clifford Williams Jr. sat in prison for 42 years for a crime he didn’t commit. And Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin, exonerated last year, who spent more than a decade on death row before new evidence (including DNA tests) helped set him free.

Until just a few years ago, the legal bar for triggering a death sentence in Florida was among America’s lowest. That changed in January 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s capital sentencing statute as unconstitutional in the Hurst v. Florida case.

The previous system required a jury to make a death penalty sentencing recommendation to a judge, and only seven of twelve jurors had to agree. The judge  would then hold a separate hearing to determine whether circumstances dictated imposing the death penalty. The 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling compelled the Florida Legislature to change that policy. Today, a death penalty conviction requires a unanimous jury recommendation.

When the Hurst v. Florida decision came down, the Florida Supreme Court issued a new opinion that requires courts to resentence more than 150 inmates on death row. The court said the new requirement of a unanimous jury for death penalty convictions should be applied retroactively to anyone sentenced after June 2002.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, at least 154 prisoners are now eligible for resentencing – and as of March 18, at least 29 have been resentenced to life. One – the above-mentioned Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin – was exonerated.

The picture grew murkier after DeSantis took office and appointed three new conservative justices to the Florida Supreme Court. The court announced this spring it will look at the case on retroactive sentencing again – a key reversal of the previous state Supreme Court.

“It would seem to me that if something’s unconstitutional, then it’s unconstitutional,” says Mark Elliott, executive director with Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “To be executing people who were sentenced to death under a method that’s now found to be unconstitutional is disturbing. It should be alarming to everyone.”

(While Clifford Williams Jr. is listed as the 29th person on Florida’s death row to be exonerated by the Death Penalty Information Center, the Florida Supreme Court overturned his original death sentence in a 4-to-3 decision, back in 1980, effectively giving him life in prison instead. That information should have been listed when the story was initially published).

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.