How Florida and Canada took different directions on the death penalty

By Geneviève Paul and Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada

Canada supplies more visitors to Florida than any other country in the world, with more than three million of us visiting the Sunshine State each year. Yet, while the bustle and beauty of South Beach may be just a three-hour flight from cities like Toronto, there is a sense in which the distance between us is far greater. A decades-wide gulf in fact.

We’re talking about the death penalty. While Canada abandoned this punishment long ago, Florida remains one of its most enthusiastic proponents. The last executions in Canada were in December 1962, when two men were hung in Toronto’s Don Jail. Seventeen months later, two men were killed in Florida’s electric chair, in what could also have been the state’s last executions. Regrettably, they were not. Florida’s halt in executions proved to be nothing more than a 15-year pause.

In 1972, the US Supreme Court overturned the USA’s capital laws because of the arbitrary way in which death sentences were being handed out. However, later that year, Florida’s lawmakers became the first in the country to enact a new capital statute. That law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1976. Less than two weeks later, the Canadian parliament voted to abolish the death penalty, except for some military offences. In 1998, Canada removed these last vestiges of capital punishment from its statute books. That same year, Florida – which by then had put more than 40 people to death since resuming executions in 1979 – moved to cement the death penalty into its Constitution to protect it from judicial ban.

It is now more than 50 years since Canada carried out its last execution. Florida has executed more than 50 people since 2000 alone. It has the second largest death row of any state in the USA, and lies fourth in the number of people it has put to death. There has been no executive clemency granted in a capital case in Florida for the past 35 years, a period that has seen more than 90 executions.

It is now more than 50 years since Canada carried out its last execution. Florida has executed more than 50 people since 2000 alone. It has the second largest death row of any state in the USA, and lies fourth in the number of people it has put to death
Geneviève Paul and Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada

A new Amnesty International report calls on Florida to rethink its attachment to the death penalty. Building on recent concerns raised by US Supreme Court Justices, it questions whether Florida is reserving the ultimate punishment for the “worst of the worst”, by which it is constitutionally bound. Cases highlighted in our report, of individuals sent to death row for crimes committed when they were barely out of their frequently abusive childhoods, or those with claims of mental or intellectual disability, suggest that it is not.

In the past two years, Florida’s Supreme Court has added a new layer of arbitrariness to the capital justice system. It decided that only about half of those on death row could benefit from a 2016 US Supreme Court ruling that Florida’s capital statute was unconstitutional for giving juries only an advisory role in death sentencing. As our report shows, the fate of many prisoners now hinges on nothing more than the timing of their cases in the appeals process.

This decision was the final straw for one state Supreme Court Justice who wrote that this partial retroactivity, coupled with the “bitter reality” that racial discrimination continues to be a factor in death sentencing, meant Florida’s death penalty was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, his opinion was in the minority.

Florida may be in the same time zone as cities like Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, but on this issue it is poles apart. This need not mean distant relations, however. Canadians are in as good a position as anyone to call upon Florida to change direction. We spent $3.8 billion in Florida last year, and when we visit, mostly for leisure and holidays, we stay about three weeks on average – twice as long as other international visitors.

We can let Floridians know how we have lived for more than half a century without the death penalty and are proud that dozens more countries have joined the abolitionist cause since then. The Sunshine State should look to Canada as more than an economic opportunity and learn from our experience in ending the ultimate cruel and degrading punishment.