Challenging the death penalty in the South

Florida state prosecutor Aramis Ayala announced last week that she would not seek the death penalty for cases in her jurisdiction, among a number of challenges to capital punishment underway in the South. (Photo via Facebook.)

"I understand this is a controversial issue but what isn't controversial is the evidence that led to my decision," Florida state prosecutor Aramis Ayala said last week as she announced she would not seek the death penalty for cases in the Orange-Osceola jurisdiction where she was recently elected to serve as Florida's first African-American state prosecutor.

The state's death penalty — which was found unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court in 2016 — was reinstated just days before Ayala's March 16 announcement when Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed legislation requiring a unanimous jury to sentence someone to death. Following Ayala's announcement, Scott removed her from the high-profile murder case of Markeith Lloyd, who is accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an on-duty police officer.  Scott is reportedly also considering removing Ayala from her position.

Ayala is challenging in circuit court Scott's decision to take her off the Lloyd case while standing by her own decision. "There is no evidence that shows the death penalty improves public safety for citizens or law enforcement," she said, "and it's costly and drags on for years for the victims' families."

Ayala cited an FBI report that found the South has the highest murder rate while also performing 80 percent of all executions, indicating the death penalty is no deterrent.

The South also has the highest number of death-row exonerations, raising serious concerns about executions of innocent people. Of the 157 people who have been exonerated from death row since 1976, 81 are from the South overall while 26 are from Florida alone.

 Since 1999, death penalty sentences have dropped dramatically nationwide, but a disproportionate number of those executions have taken place in the South. Of the 20 executions in the U.S. in 2016, 19 of them took place in just four Southern states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas.

Of the 13 Southern states, only one — West Virginia — does not impose capital punishment; it abolished its death penalty law in 1965. There are currently over 1,400 people on death row in the South. Florida has the most at 400, but over half of them may be eligible for resentencing because of the state Supreme Court's ruling.

Arkansas, which has 36 people on death row, has not executed anyone since 2005 because of legal appeals on behalf of the inmates. The state also faces a shortage of lethal-injection drugs. After being petitioned by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) decided to make use of the eight remaining doses before they expire at the end of April; the state now plans to execute eight men over 10 days next month. While Hutchinson has said the eight men have exhausted their legal appeals, the state ACLU calls it a reckless plan that could result in state-sanctioned torture before death. The Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and other groups will hold a town hall meeting next week on what it's calling a "historic mass execution."

Tennessee, which has 72 people on death row, also lacks the drugs necessary to carry out lethal injections, resulting in a de facto moratorium since 2009. South Carolina too has had trouble securing lethal-injection drugs.

Meanwhile, in every Southern state with the death penalty activists are working to abolish it. They include civil rights activists who focus on the system's racial bias, faith leaders who view the work as part of their ministry, and even family members of victims who seek closure but not vengeance.

The controversies surround the death penalty have led to legislation that's currently being considered in several Southern states:

  • The only state that does not require a unanimous jury verdict to impose a death sentence, Alabama also allows judges to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence and replace it with a death sentence. The state Senate recently voted to do away with the judicial override, and state House members will take up the matter when they return to the capitol next month.

  • Earlier this year, the Mississippi legislature considered a bill that would have brought back the gas chamber and firing squad as legal execution methods, but it was defeated in the Senate. The state ACLU vehemently opposed the measure.

  • Executions in Tennessee have been on hold since 2009 because of ongoing legal challenges. A bill filed earlier this year would expedite the death penalty appeals process by bypassing the Court of Criminal Appeals and sending appeals straight to the Supreme Court.

  • In Texas, which has executed more people than any other state, a bill introduced earlier this month in the legislature would end the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. Lawmakers in seven other states including North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia have either introduced such legislation or announced that they plan to do so.