Florida may be fourth in the nation when it comes to population, but we're still No. 1 when it comes to sending convicted killers to death row, according to a report from a national nonprofit group that studies the death penalty in America.
The Sunshine State sentenced 21 inmates to death in 2012 -- more than California, more than Pennsylvania, and even more than Texas, which continues to lead in the number of inmates actually executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
It's the second straight year in which Florida has held the top spot among the states that have a death penalty, but it still represents a big spike over last year, when we sent 13 people to death row. California came in second both years, having sent 10 inmates to death row in 2011 and 14 this year.
Of the 33 states that have a death penalty, 24 carried out no executions and 14 sent no new inmates to death row in 2012.
Florida carried out three executions in 2012: Robert Waterhouse, a convicted rapist and murderer from Tampa Bay; David Alan Gore, a serial rapist who confessed to six murders; and Manuel Pardo, a former police officer who killed nine people in the late 1980s.
Texas carried out 15 executions in 2012, with Arizona, Oklahoma and Mississippi tied for second place at six apiece. But Texas only added nine inmates to death row in the same time.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the numbers reflect a decline in the usage of the death penalty in recent years. This year and last year are the only years in which fewer than 100 inmates were sentenced to death nationwide.
None of the 21 inmates added to Florida's death row hail from Broward, Palm Beach or Miami-Dade counties, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. A jury unanimously recommended death in the case of Randy W. Tundidor, who was convicted of murder in Broward in May. But the judge in that case isn't expected to formally sentence the defendant until early in 2013.
In Palm Beach County, no defendant has received a death sentence since 2001; and those involving two murder defendants that year for a 1998 triple-slaying were later reduced to life sentences. Only 7 percent of Florida's death row population, or eight of about 400 inmates, are from Palm Beach County cases.
But Palm Beach County State Attorney Peter Antonacci, appointed in March by Gov. Rick Scott and serving until early next month, has ramped up the volume of cases marked for death penalty prosecutions.
All first-degree murder cases now start off that way automatically, Antonacci said, to make sure prosecutors secure their right to evidence collected by defense attorneys that could be used later on to argue for life terms.
As of early November, there were 22 cases in 2012 that were tagged as new death penalty prosecutions in Palm Beach County. These include the three men charged in the Aug. 30 murder of former New Jersey high school wrestler Dustin Deckard in Delray Beach, and the man charged in the murders of two teenagers during a Sweet 16 party in a Riviera Beach banquet room on Sept. 1.
Antonacci makes no apologies for filing notices to seek the death penalty on certain murder cases that may appear to lack a heinous quality, such as the killing of a child.
"You have a dead human being," he said, adding "we have cheapened the value of human life" by settling for less than capital punishments.
Broward accounts for 23 death row inmates, the most recent being Darious Wilcox, who was sentenced in May 2011 for the murder of Inverrary Village resident Nimoy "Kevin" Johnson in 2008.
Earlier this year, the Broward State Attorney's Office appealed a federal court's decision ordering a new trial for death row inmate Albert Holland, who was sentenced to die in 1997 for the murder of Pompano Beach Police Officer Scott Winters. Holland remains on death row.
The death penalty is also being sought in several pending trials, including the case against Anthony Moscatiello and Anthony Ferrari, the reputed mobsters accused of arranging the murder of prominent South Florida businessman Gus Boulis.
Florida also leads the nation in the number of death row inmates who were later exonerated, acquitted, or had their charges dropped, said Dieter. The state accounts for 24 of 142 such cases, the most recent being Seth Penalver, who was sentenced to death in 2000 after he was convicted of three 1994 murders in what was known as the Casey's Nickelodeon trials. Penalver's conviction was overturned in 2006 and he was found not guilty last Friday after a five-month trial. He was freed early Saturday morning.
Penalver's one-time co-defendant, Pablo Ibar, remains on death row.
"We don't want to be executing people we can't even convict," said Dieter, who said his organization is neutral on the morality of the death penalty but concerned about its just application. "A high number of exonerations would spell out some problems. It leads you to worry about some of the people who have been convicted. If we're going to have a death penalty, you don't want to lose confidence in the system."
The statistics reported by the Death Penalty Information Center do not adjust for the size of each state's population. If they did, Florida, with 19.3 million residents, would rank in a near tie with Delaware, which has fewer than 1 million residents and sent just one person to death row this year. Florida would also rank below Alabama, which has 4.8 million residents but sent six people to death row (one for every 804,000, compared to one for every 919,000 in Florida).
Staff writer Marc Freeman contributed to this report.
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