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Julie Delegal: A new, conservative voice opposes capital punishment

A new voice has emerged in the debate about capital punishment, and, in one respect, it echoes a very old one.

Marc Hyden is a former field director for the National Rifle Association — sealing forever his street cred as a deep-dyed conservative. His new gig is coordinating a group that rose from the ground up, in CPAC meetings around the country: Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

Hyden and I recently appeared together on Jacksonville’s morning NPR show, First Coast Connect, hosted by Florida Politics’ Melissa Ross. I was there to talk about Shelby Farah’s family, whose mourning over Shelby’s brutal murder is amplified by delayed justice for the defendant charged in her case.

The Farah family wants the case wrapped up; they want the state to take the plea that’s on the table, a life sentence with no parole. The State Attorney’s Office, despite the family’s wishes, wants the death penalty. The family’s story, featured on the cover of Folio Weekly, became part of a Tiger Bay Club debate between anti-death-penalty advocate Kristina Musante, and chief homicide prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda.

Musante’s group, Justice 4 Jacksonville, is bringing attention to Northeast Florida’s overuse of the death penalty in relation to the rest of the state, and indeed, the nation. Florida is number one when it comes to death penalty sentences. She says that the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which comprises Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, ranks eighth in the nation for the most death penalty sentences. In 2012, our circuit handed down one-fourth of Florida’s death sentences. In 2010 and 2011, we accounted for half of all new Florida death sentences. State Attorney Angela Corey was elected in 2008, again in 2012, and has drawn at least one challenger, Wes White, in next year’s election.

De la Rionda, for his part, said in the September 18 debate that the death penalty was appropriate for those who commit particularly heinous murders. Farah’s murder was as heinous as it gets; she was shot dead during a robbery at the North Main Street Metro PCS store, which she managed.

The case appears to meet the legal criteria for a death sentence, pending further hearings on the defendant’s mental health and other mitigating factors. While the murderer’s legal culpability is still an issue to be decided, prosecutors have surveillance videotape showing that he was, indeed, the shooter. Still, the family wants the state to take the defendant’s plea.

Enter Hyden, with a different — and distinctly conservative — take on capital punishment. Hyden and CCADP oppose the death penalty on three conservative principles:

–First, he says, it’s not pro-life. That’s where he echoes an older voice in the debate, the Catholic Church. Hyden issued a statement endorsing Pope Francis’s plea to Congress on the death penalty. In short, the pontiff asked lawmakers to abolish capital punishment.

–Second, Hyden says, administering the death penalty is not fiscally responsible. The most recent cost analysis we have for Florida, from a Palm Beach Post study, is 15 years old. In 2000, The Post estimated the state’s cost of enforcing the death penalty, over and beyond enforcing life in prison, was $51 million per year.

Costs of death penalty trials are more expensive than non-death penalty homicide trials, as numerous experts and investigators are hired to consult. Appeals, which can drag on for years, or even decades, also drive up the cost of enforcing the death penalty.

“It’s a very conservative estimate,” Hyden says of The Post’s number, noting that costs continue to rise.   Assuming everything else is constant, the online U.S. Inflation Calculator puts that $51 million figure at nearly $71 million today.

That’s a lot of money, critics say, for a program that doesn’t work. As Times Union columnist Tonyaa Weathersbee writes, if the death penalty is supposed to be a deterrent to murder, then Jacksonville’s murderers “didn’t get the memo.” Even though our circuit has more people on Death Row than any other in Florida, our homicide rate keeps increasing.

–But the third conservative principle that Hyden cites as reason for opposing the death penalty is perhaps most compelling: limited government.

“We don’t trust the government to deliver the mail or run a healthcare program,” Hyden says. “Why should we trust it to make these life or death decisions?”

Why, indeed, when we, the people, are doing such an awful job of putting the right individuals to death?

Twenty-five people have been taken off Death Row in Florida since capital punishment was reinstated in 1973. That’s more than in any other state.

It’s mistakes like these that necessitate a vigorous and zealous appeals process for Death Row convicts — if we’re going to bother at all, in this country, with notions of due process of law. For Hyden, there’s not enough due process in the world to trust executions at the behest of our government.

Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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