There are plenty of reasons that argue against the death penalty — religious, moral, constitutional. What is more cruel and unusual than lethal injection, a method the Nazis first put to broad use during the Holocaust? In Florida, mere math is one such argument. The state's grim ratio of one exoneration for every 17 people on death row certainly suggests that at least some of the 75 people the state killed since 1976 were innocent, and many of the 405 on death row today might be.
Last week, I went to the state prison in Starke for the first time to witness the scene just outside the prison. Larry Eugene Mann was being killed a few hundred yards from us for the 1980 murder of a 10-year-old girl from Palm Harbor. Two roped-off holding pens had been created in a large field across the road from the prison, one marked with a sign that read “SUPPORTERS” and another that read “PROTESTERS.” We could have been at a high school debate. A row of Florida Highway Patrol cruisers and troopers divided the two groups, although neither group exceeded three dozen people.
It was a wonderfully mild day for an execution. Cows arrayed in their pasture against the prison's fences mooed. Birds and traffic flew by, indifferent. The entire afternoon seemed so civil and rustic, like the first scenes of “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” Which is why the horror so easily endures in this state. An execution is just another day.
Mark Elliott is nevertheless hopeful. He heads Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He's been to every vigil outside Starke for a decade or so. He was there again last week. “Segregation, Jim Crow, women not being able to vote, lynchings,” he told me as we waited for word of Mann's death, “all of that sounds so barbaric. But it wasn't so long ago.”
The death penalty will take its place in that grim gallery. But the death chamber needs fewer Floridian fans first.