Today's Palm Beach Post publishes the editorial, "Decision to seek death penalty deserves more scrutiny." It's written by Andrew Marra for the Post editorial board.
When Carey Haughwout, Palm Beach County’s longtime public defender, calls a courtroom policy “crazy,” that’s a pretty good sign it deserves scrutiny. When her target involves something as grave as the death penalty, that’s a clue it’s a matter of serious concern.
And “crazy” is precisely the word Ms. Haughwout used to describe a new policy at the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office that has prosecutors seeking the death penalty at the start of every first-degree murder case they prosecute — including some cases in which the accused clearly seems to suffer from mental illness.
As the Post’s Jane Musgrave reported, under this policy the number of death-penalty cases the office is prosecuting has doubled, from 12 in 2009 to 24 in 2012. And Ms. Haughwout and other defense attorneys say it makes prosecuting cases more expensive and leads to a host of complications for suspects, the victims’ families and the lawyers involved.
It didn’t always work this way. Under former State Attorney Barry Krischer, a committee of senior prosecutors reviewed first-degree murder cases to decide if the evidence and circumstances warranted pursuing the death penalty. The decision can be complex, with attorneys weighing a host of aggravating and mitigating circumstances such as the suspect’s prior criminal record and the extent to which a murder appeared premeditated.
Under interim State Attorney Peter Antonacci, who officially steps down this month when newly elected State Attorney Dave Aronberg takes over, this committee system has been discarded. Mr. Antonacci says that, as the office’s ultimate decision-maker, it ought to be left to him alone to decide when his office pursues the death penalty. And he has decided that, at least at the outset, the best tack is to seek the death penalty in all first-degree murder cases.
Incoming State Attorney Dave Aronberg didn’t comment for the article but has said he intends to reimplement a committee system to make death penalty decisions. Doing so would be the best way to unwind what appears to have become a costly and antagonistic tactic.
Earlier coverage from Palm Beach County is in this Florida Roundup.