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Local faith leaders demand Tampa Bay-area prosecutors stop seeking death penalty

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A week after a national study singled out Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties as outliers in advocating for death penalty cases, a coalition of religious figures spoke out in Tampa Monday to demand that the state attorneys in those two jurisdictions, Pinellas’ Bernie McCabe and Hillsborough’s Mark Ober, cease calling for any further capital cases.

“The moment is here. It’s our opportunity as faith leaders and as people of good will across the state of Florida, particularly Tampa Bay, to say it’s time to end the death penalty. It serves no public good,” said the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches.

Meyer and the other officials who gathered cited statistics published in that study, The Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project’s report, which stated both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties were in the small minority of counties in the nation plagued by persistent problems of “overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias.”

“I am concerned as an African-American, that of the 16 counties surveyed by the report, they determined in their studies that 10 of those counties had 10 percent of all death row exonerations nationwide. Their study went on to show that 46 percent between 2010-2015 were of African-American descent,” said the Rev. Mel Harris from the Destiny Baptist Church in Spring Hill. “That troubles me to the core of our soul … race plays a part in the death penalty.”

Father Robert Schneider, representing Bishop Robert Lynch of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, not only mentioned the Harvard University report, but also the decision by the Florida Supreme Court Friday that ruled that the state’s death penalty law is unconstitutional because it does not require a unanimous jury decision to impose the sentence.

“We’re nonpartisan, we don’t come here to promote any political agenda,” averred Schneider. “However, in the light of these findings and events, we call upon Mark Ober in Hillsborough County and and Bernie McCabe in Pinellas County, our state attorneys, to examine the findings of the Harvard report and recent decision of the Florida Supreme Court, as diligent and serious concerns. They should not be dismissed out of hand.”

Ober was extremely critical of the report upon its release last week, saying, “The group releasing this report opposes the death penalty, and its report is nothing more than a position paper to support its cause. It makes no attempt to be fair and balanced. Instead of attempting to consider all the relevant factors in each case, it simply declares the death penalty to be broken, and criticizes prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, and jurors based on its own arbitrary criteria and false assumptions.” (McCabe never returned our request for comment).

After they concluded their remarks, the officials crossed the street and entered the Hillsborough courthouse, where they said they were going to drop a letter off to Ober signed by 75 clergy from Hillsborough and Pinellas to immediately suspend the use of the death penalty.

“In every death penalty case, my office carefully reviews the evidence and the facts surrounding the case,” Ober said last week. “We carefully consider all the aggravating and mitigating factors in determining whether it is appropriate to have the jury and judge consider the death penalty as a sentencing option. We do not take lightly our responsibility to charge accurately in any case, especially a death penalty case. We seek justice one case at a time. We do not make decisions based on arbitrary standards that a special interest group opposing the death penalty establishes.”

After last week’s ruling by the state Supreme Court, the state Legislature must approve a new death penalty law that can pass muster in the courts. Until then, the state’s 385 current death row prisoners remain in legal limbo.

Although 20 states now ban the use of the death penalty, it remains popular in Florida. A poll released in January indicated that 73 percent of Florida voters support a requirement that juries render a unanimous decision to apply the death penalty. Of those voters, 57 percent “strongly support” that stipulation.

 

 

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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