Florida firing squads? What has death penalty supporters all riled up?

Heated rhetoric over the death penalty just got hotter with a proposal, in Florida, that firing squads replace lethal injections. Some see this as a sign that death penalty supporters are insecure.

By , Staff writer

A majority of Americans seem to agree: They want the death penalty. And in a majority of states, the death penalty is legal.

So why are supporters of the death penalty engaging in so much heated rhetoric when, by all appearances, they seem to have both public opinion and the law on their side?

A case in point: Republican presidential contender Rick Perry received booming applause from a debate audience last month after he said he “never struggled” with any of the 234 executions he presided over during his watch as Texas governor.

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And now in Florida, a state that already has capital punishment on the books and carried out an execution as recently as late September, a Republican lawmaker is proposing a bill to do away with lethal injection and only allow execution by electrocution or firing squad.

So what is happening here? Some analysts suggest that those who think capital punishment is the ultimate crime deterrent are becoming increasingly insecure in the face of a resolute opposition to the death penalty, and that is moving them to find louder and more visible ways of making their position known.

In Florida, state Rep. Brad Drake (R) said his legislation is in response to the execution of Manuel Valle on Sept. 29, which was delayed by legal battles over the mixture of lethal drugs used in the procedure.

In a statement, Representative Drake said he is “tired of being humane to inhumane people,” and believes harsher punishment is justified to achieve justice for the most heinous crimes in his state.

“Let’s end the debate. We still have Old Sparky,” he said. “And if that doesn’t suit the criminal, then we will provide them with a .45 caliber lead cocktail instead.”

A firing squad, which most Americans associate with the nation’s frontier past, is the antithesis of lethal injection, which is considered a more clinical procedure and therefore less fraught with emotional baggage.

Just three people have died by a firing squad since 1976, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

In cases like Drake’s, extreme remarks about the death penalty are merely “red meat for a political conversation,” says Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University in Columbus, who specializes in death penalty sentencing issues.

“That is part of the broader story of the death penalty. It is much more about rhetoric than reality,” Mr. Berman says.

What is real, meanwhile, is that there are plenty of reasons for supporters of the death penalty to feel insecure. Even with the death penalty on the books in 34 states, the number of executions carried out each year has dropped 56 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the number of new death sentences meted out has fallen 50 percent in that same period.

Similarly, fewer states are carrying out executions despite having crowded death rows, suggesting that the political will is fading due to a combination of public opposition, heightened DNA testing, and costly legal challenges. For example, 45 percent of all executions in 2010 took place in one state: Texas. Only one other state came close, Ohio, with 22 percent.

Those numbers are reinforcing the belief among capital punishment supporters that they may be losing the overall battle with death penalty abolitionists.

“The anti-death penalty crowd is committed in a kind of single-issue way, which is why supporters of the death penalty know they always have to be in some kind of battle mode. They genuinely believe the abolitionist community is never going to give up until they get the success they seek, which is getting the death penalty eliminated nationwide,” Berman says.

As for public opinion, support is showing some signs of eroding. According to the Gallup polling organization, 61 percent of Americans – a 39-year low – approve of using the death penalty for murder convictions, down from 64 percent in 2010.

Abolitionists like Greg Mitchell, author of “Dead Reckoning,” which tracks the history of the death penalty, say it is mistake to assume, based on polling data, that the majority of Americans support the death penalty, because the question does not offer life without parole as an alternative punishment. When asked in other polls, he says, Americans tend to be more evenly divided.

For example, when Gallup gave the choice between death penalty and life imprisonment without parole, 49 percent choose the former and 46 the latter. (Gallup did not ask the question this year.)

“There are far fewer executions [than] there used to be because of the reluctance of prosecutors, because they know the [legal] roadblocks and they know jurors, when it comes down to it, don’t want to convict,” Mr. Mitchell says. “Public vengeance is satisfied with life without parole.”

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