Faith leaders call on Hillsborough & Pinellas to halt death penalty

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Anti-death penalty sign posted on Flikr (Creative Commons).

Dozens of faith leaders are calling on Hillsborough and Pinellas County prosecutors to stop calling for the death penalty; this comes after the two Tampa Bay area counties were counted by a Harvard study as outliers in their use of the sentence of death. WMNF News interviewed Fr. Bob Schneider, pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico, one of the 75 faith leaders to sign a letter to Pinellas and Hillsborough County prosecutors demanding a stop to death penalty cases.

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“Harvard University has done a national study of the death penalty. Through their study, called the Fair Punishment Project, they discovered that there were 15 counties in the whole United States that seemed to be prosecuting people and applying the death penalty more than anyone else. It turns out that Hillsborough County and Pinellas County are one of those 15.

“So, since we are faith leaders in Pinellas and in Hillsborough County, we had this opportunity to talk to the county attorneys or we wanted to speak to them. But we presented them with a letter expressing our concerns over the way the death penalty is being applied. We feel it’s being applied unjustly.”

Have you had any response to that letter?

“Not directly, that I’m aware of. Although, I know that through the media, I think both of the State’s Attorneys have responded saying that they feel that the study is biased and is not really a true reflection of reality, with which we would disagree.

“We just wanted to take the study seriously, really think about it, especially in the light of what happened this past Friday, when the Florida Supreme Court declared the new death penalty statute, enacted by the legislature this past March, is unconstitutional.”

Besides the Florida legislature going back and fixing that to make it a constitutional provision, what could the State’s Attorneys — here in Hillsborough and in Pinellas — what could they do now to more fairly apply the death penalty, in your opinion?

“Well, it sort of becomes a blame game. The State’s Attorneys will say: ‘Well, go to the legislature and get this fixed and then we’ll apply the law more justly.’ We are saying that the law is unjust to begin with – it was unconstitutional. You’ve been applying it, seemingly with a great deal of vigor, particularly when it comes to cases that involve mental illness and mental disability and we just feel that the best way, ultimately, to not have these abuses take place with the death penalty is to not have a death penalty at all. And we would go to legislatures and we will encourage them not to reenact the statute and to abolish the death penalty in Florida, then the problem is solved.”

Is there an appetite for that? Have you talked to your parishioners or to people that feel that that might be an option?

“Of course, that’s always a mixed bag, but, surveys tell us that when people are asked the question: ‘Are you for the death penalty?’ They will say ‘yes’, a majority still, in the state of Florida, will. But, if you say: ‘Are you in favor of the death penalty or if life without possibility of parole would be provided?’, all of a sudden the numbers change. When they have that choice, they realize that choosing to not apply the death penalty, when it isn’t absolutely necessary, is something they do prefer. So, we feel a majority of people, when the question is posed in that way, are against the death penalty.”

And finally, tell me more about the coalition that you built around this letter. What types of faiths are represented?

“Well, it’s a coalition of many faith communities within the Tampa Bay area. Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, people and faith leaders have signed this letter. We’re not really a formal coalition in as much as we saw this as an opportunity to make our voices heard. And so, over 75 faith leaders signed the letter and we’re hoping for a positive response from those in authority.”

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