Friday, April 19, 2013

Were you the same person 32 years ago?

Last weekend lawprof Doug Berman posted an article about how the state of Florida got around to murdering an inmate 32 years after he was sentenced to death. Mr. Berman's use of the word (finally) in the title tells you just about all you need to know about his views on the ultimate act of governmental power.

An interesting twist, however, was Mr. Berman's idea that if an execution isn't carried out within 15 years of the date of sentencing that the sentence should be commuted to life in prison without parole (what my fellow blawger Jeff Gamso refers to as "death in prison"). Mr. Berman's thoughts, of course, are with the family and friends of the victim and their need for closure (which is a fantasy that occurs).

In Mr. Berman's opinion, the fact that it took Florida 32 years to kill Larry Eugene Mann makes a mockery of our criminal (in)justice system. His idea of a mockery being that the savages' desire for bloodlust was delayed so long.

I concur that holding a man on death row for three decades makes a mockery of our system. But not because those seeking revenge had to wait so long but because the passage of 32 years renders the court's determination that Mr. Mann needed killing moot.

In most jurisdictions that murder inmates, before a death sentence can be imposed there must be a finding that the defendant will remain a danger to society in the future. At the time he was sentenced to die, Mr. Mann was 27 years old. At the time of the murder he was younger still.

Due to the nature of the murder I could see how a jury or a judge could make the decision that Mr. Mann would continue to be a danger to society. But that was back in 1981. Ronald Reagan was president. We had no internet. Cell phones were the size of bricks.

Things change over the course of 32 years. People get older. They get more mature. They might even get wiser. People certainly mellow out over time. Our attitudes and beliefs change. Sitting in a small cell with limited contact with the outside world gives a man plenty of time to think and to contemplate his existence.

Larry Eugene Mann wasn't the same person the other night when he was strapped down to a gurney and poisoned to death as he was the day he murdered ten-year-old Eliza Nelson. The time that passed certainly didn't mitigate his guilt. But the passage of 32 years should cast doubts on the finding that Mr. Mann would continue to be a danger to society.

Taking advantage of the publicity regarding the length of time that passed between the sentencing and the murder of Larry Mann, the judiciary committee of the Florida House passed a bill that would set stricter deadlines for post-conviction litigation of death penalty cases. Of course that's to be expected since convicted murderers don't have an effective lobby and have no political muscle.

The irony is that there are 28 inmates on Florida's death row who have been there longer than the 32 years Mr. Mann spent there. That's 28 more "special findings' that have no validity anymore due to the passage of time.

Yes, Mr. Berman, executing a man after spending 32 years on death row does make a mockery of our criminal (in)justice system. Just not for the reason you believe.

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