When will state stop arbitrary death-penalty decisions?

Picture: Florida State Prison

Picture: Florida State Prison (STEPHEN M. DOWELL, ORLANDO SENTINEL / October 25, 2006)

The state couldn't prove how or where Caylee Anthony died. It couldn't come up with any abusive behavior, much less a good motive why Casey Anthony might have killed her daughter.

Another defendant probably would have been charged with criminal neglect or manslaughter. But because it was Casey, prosecutors sought the death penalty.

Bob Ward called 911 from his Isleworth mansion and said, "I just shot my wife…''

Police found her in a pool of blood.

His first wife had divorced him 32 years ago, alleging "physical cruelty'' and asking that he be restrained from harming her.

A former girlfriend said the millionaire developer once pointed a gun at her and hit her in the face with a bedpost.

Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty against Ward.

I don't know what crime, if any, Ward may have committed.

But it seems the decision on which cases to pursue as death-penalty cases is disturbingly arbitrary. The odds certainly seem to favor those who can afford top legal talent.

The system for deciding who on death row gets the needle isn't any better.

Gov. Rick Scott recently signed his first death warrant. It was for Manuel Valle, who has been on death row since the Bee Gees' "Night Fever" topped the Billboard charts.

His original 1978 conviction for shooting a police officer was thrown out. A self-promoting judge decided to show how tough she was by rushing the case to trial in 24 days, not giving defense attorneys time to prepare.

So there was a second trial, where Valle was convicted again. This time the conviction was upheld, but the sentencing hearing was successfully challenged.

So there was another one. Ten years after first being sentenced to death, Valle was sentenced to death once more.

Since then, there have been about 20 various appeals and petitions at a cost of millions to taxpayers. One of Valle's claims was that as a Cuban national, the state was obligated under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relation to notify him of the right to consult with a consulate or diplomatic officer.

There is no rhyme or reason here. A governor's decision on whose death warrant to sign, as well as a judge's decision on which appeal to accept, are about as arbitrary as a prosecutor's decision to pursue the death penalty.

We spend an estimated $51 million annually on this nonsense, and for our investment we haven't executed anyone going on a year and a half.

The ridiculous backlog of 399 death-row inmates is only going to grow, as are their housing and legal costs.

A new drug that Florida plans to use in its lethal cocktail finally survived all the legal challenges, including one by Valle, only to be pulled by the manufacturer. A new drug will mean more challenges.

A federal judge recently ruled that Florida's death-penalty statute is unconstitutional because the condemning jury doesn't have to disclose which aggravating circumstances led to its recommendation.

On and on it goes.

The demand to limit appeals is troublesome, given that Florida leads the nation in the number of exonerated death-row inmates. It amazes me that conservatives who push for tort reform because of runaway juries, and who rant against the power of big government, have complete faith in big government and juries to kill people.

The death penalty eventually will be phased out, as it has been in all other civilized countries.

In the meantime, Florida needs to cull death row down to the 50 worst offenders. That is all the state can reasonably expect to execute in the next 15 or 20 years. The rest are just very expensive lifers. We then need to join most other states and require unanimous jury decisions, instead of simply majorities, on death sentences.

mthomas@tribune.com or 407-420-5525

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