Askari Abdullah Muhammad, formerly known as Thomas Knight, has exhausted his final appeal. He is scheduled to be executed by the state of Florida on Jan. 7. He has spent 38 years on death row.
“Thirty-eight years?” you might ask, and that may lead you to think that legislation Gov. Rick Scott signed in June, named “Timely Justice,” makes sense. Under “Timely Justice,” the governor must sign a death warrant within 30 days of the conclusion of a review for clemency, and execution must take place within 180 days.
“Timely Justice” will be timely. It will not be just.
First, there will be errors in executing the legislation: Florida has the highest number of death row exonerations in the country — 24 since 1973.
Second, in mandating the governor to sign a warrant within 30 days, there will be discrimination by ethnicity and class. Forty-five percent of the inmates on Florida’s death row are African-American or Latino. If national data apply, they are all poor, and most will have been sentenced for crimes against whites — crimes for which prosecutors earn political benefit by appearing “tough.”
Third, there will be discrimination by geography. A scathing American Bar Association report on the death penalty in Florida reports that death penalties come from only a small number of counties, suggesting that a definition of justice in sentencing rests with a local district attorney.
A new report from the Death Penalty Information Center demonstrates that this is true nationwide. “Contrary to the assumption that the death penalty is widely practiced across the country, it is actually the domain of a small percentage of U.S. counties in a handful of states — 2 percent in fact.
I am not claiming that every person on death row is innocent or that every prosecutor is motivated by self-interest. I am also not suggesting that we not have society bring those who murder before the courts.
On the issue of the death penalty, however, it is clear that states — indeed counties — have proven that they are not able to manage capital punishment in a way that is accurate and fair.
Twice we have tried to fix a broken system. In 1972, the Supreme Court, convinced by a series of cases in which race, class and geography had clearly influenced judgment, imposed a nationwide moratorium on execution. The justices called the system “arbitrary and capricious” and forbade execution everywhere — until individual states could demonstrate they could manage it fairly. That moratorium lasted four years. Beginning in 1976, states brought forward processes that on paper promised accuracy and fairness. As the situation in Florida proves, this “experiment,” too, has failed.
The “Timely Justice” legislation will not “fix” capital punishment in Florida; it will make it worse. The only way to “clear out” Florida’s death row is to abolish the death penalty and commute existing sentences to life in prison.
It is not likely that Florida will do that on its own. Most of the residents are like I used to be: disinterested, uninformed, and easily distracted by language such as “timely justice.” The Supreme Court must do it. It is time for another moratorium on the death penalty. This one for good.
Susanne Dumbleton is a professor and former dean at DePaul University School for New Learning. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.