There was a time in the mid-twentieth century when this country had essentially suspended the death penalty. It didn’t last long.
First, in 1972, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Furman v. Georgia, opening the doors for capital punishment to be an accepted form of punishment should a state seek to impose it upon a defendant. In Furman, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the death penalty to be imposed at the same time that a defendant was found guilty. Deciding the penalty of death would have to take place only after a guilty verdict was announced.
Second, in the 1976 case of Gregg v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion that capital punishment, in and of itself, was not in violation of the U.S. Constitution. In other words, it was legal to kill citizens as punishment for certain crimes in this country, should the state choose to do so. They just had to follow the two-prong trial phase of guilt/punishment established in Furman.
Many state statutes were unconstitutional under Furman, and if a state wanted to impose capital punishment as allowed by Gregg, a new law would have to be enacted that comported with Furman’s requirements. It fell upon the Great State of Florida to be the first state to act in accordance with the Furman decision, and to reinstitute the death penalty with a newly written statute in August 1972.
Florida’s 30 Year Anniversary
And while Florida did commute over 90 cases because of the Furman decision, Florida was also the first state to impose the penalty of death since 1964 – a moratorium of 15 years – when in 1979, John Arthur Spenkelink was executed by electric chair (“Old Sparky”) in 1979.
There has been some worthwhile media coverage of this thirty year milestone, and of particular interest is:
1. Coverage by the Associated Press’ Ron Wood, where interviews of Richard Dugger, the assistant warden of the Florida State Prison at the time of the Spenkelink Execution, as well as David Kendall, Spenkelink’s attorney – and eyewitness to the execution, are provided. There is some worthwhile discussion of death by electrocution, including some graphic details of the botched executions involving Florida’s electric chair, known as “Old Smokey.”
2. Naples Daily News’ Jeff Weiner’s article focusing upon the ten Florida Death Row inmates pertaining to Southwest Florida (Lee and Collier County). Note the length of time that these individuals have been facing death, and consider once again what daily life on Death Row is like (see 04/04/09 post, “What it’s Really Like on Florida’s Death Row.”).