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Joe Henderson: Impending execution raises old questions on death penalty

in Statewide/Top Headlines by
Mark Asay

If Mark James Asay is executed tonight, that will be the first time the state of Florida has used capital punishment on a white man for killing a black person.

It’s a grim reality that’s worth noting, and I would respectfully disagree with Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Elliott told the Tampa Bay Times, “This does nothing to change the 170-year long history of Florida not executing whites for killing blacks.”

Well, yeah it does — although no one is saying it balances the scales. If we’re going to have the death penalty in Florida, then Asay’s forced departure from the realm of the living is justice — delayed, for sure, but justice.

He was convicted of premeditated murder for killing two men in Jacksonville in 1987. One of them, Robert Lee Booker, was black. Prosecutors said Asay made racist comments during all this. This is not a man who will generate, or deserve, much sympathy. But his execution, the 93rd since Florida resumed the death penalty in 1976, does come at a time when capital punishment is under siege in this state.

A survey from Public Policy Polling found 62 percent of Floridians prefer a life sentence to execution. The state also was forced to change the law to require unanimous jury consent before the ultimate punishment can be imposed.

That’s a little late for Asay, whose death sentence came after a 9-3 jury verdict in favor. The state Supreme Court ruled that the law isn’t retroactive for other cases on death row.

Florida also changed the drugs it uses in executions, replacing the sedative midazolam — which is getting harder to acquire because drug companies don’t want to be complicit in executions — with etomidate. It’s the first time that drug has been used for this purpose.

What could go wrong?

I guess we’ll find out. Florida has botched executions before, which brings up another point. Although the state keeps looking, there is no surefire way to help a condemned person go peacefully to such a deep sleep that they will never notice that they are dying.

Critics would call that terrible. Proponents would likely say “who cares?” And I say that this is an issue society will grapple with as long as the state wants to put people to death.

I don’t like the death penalty, but we have it, and some crimes are so horrible that death seems a just punishment. If a jury unanimously decides that execution is justice, so be it.

But the world won’t be a better place tomorrow morning if Asay leaves it tonight. Actually, if it weren’t for the newsworthy aspects of this execution, I doubt people would even notice. They also wouldn’t notice if he were locked away with no chance of getting out. Maybe it’s time for that.

If Florida wants to change the law to halt executions for good, that’s fine by me.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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