The Death Penalty’s Fatal Flaw is Finding a Way to Do It Right

The Death Penalty’s Fatal Flaw is Finding a Way to Do It Right


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Tony Panaccio
Co-Founder of Bold Blue Campaigns
Award-Winning Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press

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(EDITOR’S NOTE: Tony Panaccio, once a reporter for the now-defunct Clearwater Sun daily newspaper, is one of only a handful of journalists to witness the execution of serial killer Ted Bundy at the Florida State Prison 28 years ago this month.)

As the federal government is gearing up to start executing death row inmates, I found myself remembering my first, and incredibly surreal, experience with capital punishment.

It took place while I was covering the execution of Ted Bundy, and happened before I even set foot in Starke Prison.

I had asked the communications director of the prison, Bob MacMaster, for Bundy’s schedule for his last day before his execution. Keep in mind, this was back in 1989, so it’s not like the old newsroom at The Clearwater Sun had email access. MacMaster sent me the information via snail mail, and it didn’t come in a standard envelope. I was expecting a couple of sheets of paper, at most. Instead, I received a three-ring binder with more than 100 pages neatly tucked inside. 

What I did not understand at the time of my request was that every minute of a condemned man’s final day is accounted for in the Florida statute authorizing the death penalty itself. Everything from bathing, restroom breaks, and even the choices for his last meal — it was all in there, in plain black and white. 

Did you know if a death row inmate gets the flu the day before his execution, the state has to wait for him to feel better before they execute him? It’s apparently only cruel and unusual to kill an inmate if his sinuses are clogged. Also, we never execute anyone on a Sunday. That would be violating the sabbath. So, now there are two things you can’t do on a Sunday in Florida — execute someone and get a Chik-Fil-A sandwich. 

It struck me that some poor clerk or legislative aide had to sit down and write this up before the law was passed, and made me wonder just how many other persnickety details were codified by a law which had the sole purpose of guiding state employees on the right way to kill a human being.

In a larger sense, that’s the question the U.S. Supreme Court was attempting to address with its ruling last year that Florida’s existing capital punishment law is unconstitutional. It’s not that the idea of the state killing a criminal as part of a legal punishment was constitutionally ambiguous, but rather, in allowing judges too much unilateral sway during the process, that we just weren’t doing it right. So, it’s still okay for the government to kill people, as long as it’s done just so.

But there’s a broader theme in play beyond the constitutionality of capital punishment: the simple reality that there may not be any “right way” for the state to kill convicted criminals. Of course, the primary problem that states are beginning to discover — aside from simply trying to find a humane and dignified way to end the life of a capital criminal — is the one thing you cannot do with the death penalty: Undo it.

The Innocence Project has helped remove 20 death row residents since they began their work in 1992, winning release for an additional 316 innocent inmates wrongly convicted of crimes. Of course, those who served years behind bars cannot get that time back. That being said, wrongful convictions turn into lawsuits, which turn into cash settlements for those inmates to take as legal compensation for their incarceration. With the death penalty, there is no compensation that can undo or compensate for that sentence once it is wrongly carried out.

Moreover, the state suffers from the costliness of administering the death penalty, with a Palm Beach Post study from January 2000 estimating Florida could save $51 million each year if all death row inmates’ sentences were commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Incidentally, that’s the most recent study on the expense of death row. 

Perhaps that is why the Supreme Court, states around the country, the Democratic Party Platform Committee and the modern media machine are finding difficulty with the death penalty, as well. In fact, the only participant in this issue who seems completely committed to the death penalty is the federal government. I guess after putting brown children in cages, they wanted to test just how far the humanity bar could be lowered without actually touching the ground.

Our government was founded as an institution to safeguard the rights and privileges of our citizens, so it stands to reason that it probably shouldn’t be in the business of killing them. It can’t be undone, and it forces the state to spend more money on inmates it intends to kill than inmates it hopes to rehabilitate. Finally, if it’s illegal for people to kill, how can it become legal simply because the government — of the people, for the people, and by the people — chooses to do it?

(Tony Panaccio is a former award-winning journalist, co-founder of Bold Blue Campaigns, architect of the national Operation Blue Map campaign, and contributor to The Bipartisan Press.)

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