For Mark Elliott, Executive Director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP), it was the killing of a Jewish prisoner by the state that put him on the road to abolish capital punishment.
Terry Sims was the first Florida prisoner put to death by lethal injection in February 2000. Mark recalls that day:
I went to the execution vigil across the street from the prison to find answers as to why we were still killing prisoners, now that there was no chance they could ever be paroled. A rabbi was leading a group in prayer and spoke to me of the unimaginable irony of choosing a Jew to be the first prisoner killed by lethal injection. He explained that it was in Hitler’s Germany where this method of execution was first developed and it was used to kill Jews. We were deeply troubled by the revival of this horrific legacy. I made a vow to learn more about Florida’s Death Penalty program.
As Mark puts it, “the more I learned about the death penalty, the less I liked it.” As a result, he got involved with Amnesty International and subsequently became its volunteer State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator.
Two years later, when Abe Bonowitz left his position as head of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty to join the New Jersey abolition campaign, Mark assumed the reigns. He has now been the volunteer FADP Executive Director for seven years.
Mark has had several different occupations through the years, including providing life support equipment to hospitals. “Every career path has taught me skills that I am using in my death penalty abolition work.”
The “Timely Justice Act”
Most recently Mark Elliott and FADP have had a major challenge in the Timely Justice Act. The
bill was sponsored by a freshman legislator whose father is president of the Florida Senate.
Mark observed, “There was an enormous amount of power politics put behind the bill. The Governor’s new chief legal advisor on the death penalty was reported to have had a role in drafting the legislation. It was fast tracked. Legislators had no time to understand the bill or its impact, nor did the public.”
He is very concerned about its potential impact. “There are so many potential downsides and horrific consequences to the bill. The courts will review parts of the legislation. But there are still a lot of behind-the-scene machinations going on. It’s hard to know what will take place.”
This measure is particularly troubling given that Florida has more death row exonerations than any other state. Since the 1970’s, Florida has executed 77 prisoners and exonerated 24 death row inmates, or one exoneration for every three executions.
In addition, Florida handed down 22 new death sentences in 2012 out of 78 nationally. That is more than one out of four new death sentences in the entire country.
Because of these concerns, FADP and its partners organized a campaign in response to Gov. Rick Scott's request for input on whether he should sign or veto the Timely Justice Act. The response to this campaign was overwhelming. On June 16th, the Governor's office had tabulated 15,021 calls, letters, and emails for a veto and just 15 for signing the bill. That's 1,000 to 1 calling for a veto. Unfortunately, Gov. Scott signed the bill later that day and promptly left for France.
According to Mark, “The intent of the Timely Justice Act is to speed up executions, increase the number of executions, and limit access to the courts by those sentenced to death. It will certainly raise the risk of executing an innocent person, if not make it a certainty.”
In a sense, however, the bad political situation has brought out the good in people. Mark observed that there has been “an outpouring of energy, enthusiasm, and outrage over this legislation. The media has been nearly unanimous in opposing the Timely Justice Act, alarmed by its potential consequences.”
Mark said that the role of FADP is to involve these new people and energy into existing abolition organizations in different regions of the state. There have been active groups in Gainesville and Tallahassee for decades as well as a new effort in the I-4 corridor of central Florida (i.e., Tampa and Orlando) and a partnership with Barry University in Miami.
“We are building a grassroots base around the state, particularly in communities of color, in different regions and within those regions.” Mark noted. “We need to connect these nodes across the state in order to take the next step, pursuing legislation.”
A good example of this new base building effort is the Justice for Jacksonville Coalition whose mission is to “eliminate the extreme and disproportionate use of the death penalty in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit.” FADP is working with Amnesty International, the ACLU, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and other community partners in Duval County which was second in the nation in the number of new death sentences in 2012. In recent years Duval County has produced nearly half of Florida’s new death sentences.
Mark says this is all very challenging work, but the need is urgent. “No government program should be permitted to forcibly kill captive prisoners. We must take a stand.”