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A matter of life and death



Old Sparky, the state's electric chair that twice set people's heads on fire, is no more. Built in 1923 and used to kill 238 people (the last being in March 1998, when four people went to the chair in a circuit-overloading nine days), Old Sparky's wooden frame is now kindling. Two executions scheduled this week will inaugurate the new chair: Thomas Provenzano, convicted of killing an Orlando court bailiff in 1984, will die on July 7, and Allen Lee Davis, convicted of killing a pregnant Jacksonville woman and her two young daughters in 1982, will go to the chair on July 8.

Of the 38 states where the death penalty is legal, only three others use electrocution. Although in 1997 the Florida Supreme Court ruled the electric chair did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, the controversy hasn't subsided. Yes, Old Sparky's oak structure has been replaced, but the apparatus that administers the electric current is "the same that has been used in recent years," according to the state Department of Corrections (DOC). And there are big discrepancies about the age of that circuitry.

Todd Scher, litigation director of the Miami office of Capital Collateral Representatives, the state-funded agency that defends death-row inmates, has asked DOC to hand over all information about the new chair. Scher knows of a report from an electrical engineer that says the wiring is more than 40 years old; the DOC says the entire circuitry was replaced in 1994. "Obviously someone's lying," says Scher. When he asked for everything the DOC had on the chair's construction, "They sent a report regarding the structure of the wooden chair itself," as if that were useful. "It's called an electric chair," Scher deadpans.

Appearing before the Supreme Court on June 29, attorneys for Provenzano and Davis sought stays, arguing that potentially obsolete circuitry could cause the chair to malfunction. The court's decision was not available at press time.

Other ongoing attempts to halt executions question the system Florida set up to defend death-row inmates. Because judges balk at carrying through death sentences for inmates without adequate representation, the Legislature in 1985 created Capital Collateral Representatives to defend death-row inmates on their latter appeals. The agency currently represents about 170 of the nearly 400 people on death row. (The rest are either in the early appeal stages or are represented by private or pro bono lawyers.)

Chronically underfunded, CCR still managed to chalk up a remarkable success rate, getting convictions overturned or sentences reversed for nearly half of its 52 resolved cases. But CCR also has been reprimanded for its zeal; by its nature the agency is entangled in struggle and contradiction: "The government is funding a place to keep people alive, and yet the state wants to put them to death," notes Karen Koerner Crane, Florida's death-penalty-abolition coordinator for Amnesty International.

In 1997 CCR was restructured into three independent regional offices of about 15 lawyers each, but the newly appointed directors had little experience in capital cases. Death-penalty opponents complained the Legislature was deliberately keeping the office weak. And funds remain scarce; the North Florida CCR office ran out of money in February and needed an emergency infusion of state cash.

As a result, a suit was filed by Stephen Hanlon, who heads the pro bono department of Holland & Knight, the state's largest law firm. Hanlon charged that Florida's death-row representation is inadequate and provides only "the illusion of a lawyer." But on June 17 the Florida Supreme Court refused to impose a moratorium on executions, finding that the CCR is adequately funded.

On yet another front, the election of Gov. Jeb Bush, who in 1995 converted to Catholicism, gave hope to some death-penalty opponents. Pope John Paul II issued a 1995 decree condemning the death penalty; as a result, the church's opposition "is beginning to receive much more attention," says Michael McCarron, executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference. "But Florida Catholic bishops have been speaking out against the death penalty for 25 years." Two bishops visited Bush in an attempt to persuade him not to sign the death warrants for Provenzano and Davis, to no avail.

The Catholic Church opposes the death penalty on moral grounds: "It's sometimes seen as justice to take these steps," says McCarron, "but the short of it is that it's retribution." Amnesty International's Crane, who also founded the Florida branch of Catholics Against the Death Penalty, says, "There are no instances in modern society where the death penalty is needed to protect society." Public opinion favors the death penalty, but "I have found in my years working on this issue that it's an ambivalent majority. Once people know we have life without parole, that changes a lot of people's minds," says Crane.

McCarron says the church adds social and practical issues to its anti-death-penalty stance: the high cost of lengthy cases, the inconsistent application of the death penalty and, as McCarron puts it, the "lingering question of innocence."

Since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, 43 people have been executed in Florida. During the same period, 16 got off the state's death row because they were found innocent. Florida has the highest number of such death-row exonerations in the country.

Catholics Against the Death Penalty will hold a prayer vigil at 7:30 p.m. July 6 at St. Margaret Mary Church, 526 N. Park Ave., Winter Park. For information, call (407) 696-7942.


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