Floridians fight against death penalty

Dwarfed by the lectern, Tallahassee resident Agnes Furey smiled as she stepped to the platform in the Leroy Collins Public Library. Furey, 73, gripped the back of the chair as she recounted circumstances surrounding a double-murder that brought her to speak at the “Don’t Kill in My Name” workshop.

Tallahassee Citizens Against the Death Penalty enlisted Furey because 12 years earlier, a man she refused to send to death row murdered her 40-year-old daughter and 6-year-old grandson. The man, Leonard Scovens, who her daughter, Patricia Reed, was trying to help overcome a drug addiction, murdered Reed and her son Christopher. Furey recalled one of the final conversations with her daughter where she warned against aiding Scovens, a 20-something crack cocaine user.

“I had encountered the man years earlier because I have been working in addictions since 1982,” Furey said. “But she told me ‘You always taught me that everybody deserves a chance.”

Within 48 hours of Patricia Reed giving Scovens his chance, he suffocated her with a plastic bag and strangled her son with an electric cord. Initially, Furey confessed, she wanted Scovens to suffer the ultimate punishment for committing the unthinkable acts to her loved ones. However, when her attorney called her days before the trial date and asked her if she wanted to pursue the death penalty, Furey choose to let Scovens live.

She said having another person murdered and the re-victimization families of victims suffer while waiting on a death row prisoner to be executed were the main reasons for her decision.

“Every time there’s another meeting you have to be there, or you’re notified; so it’s in your conscious awareness, and every time you have to do that those feelings come back up again,” Furey said. “I can’t feel like I can be responsible for somebody being killed.”
A moment of silence had to be called so participants could collect themselves after Furey’s bare-all testimony.

Workshops and grassroots initiatives like “Don’t Kill in My Name” are designed by TCADP to inform Floridians about alternatives to the State of Florida carrying out the death penalty.
“The organization has been around since they reinstituted the death penalty in the late 70s,” Shelia Meehan, a former TCADP chairperson, said. “They have a special responsibility to make it known to the legislators and the governors that they don’t believe in this.”

According to the Florida Department of Corrections Web site, capital punishment was reinstated in Florida in 1976. Since then, 69 death sentences have been carried out, with number 70, David Johnston, scheduled to be executed on March 9. However, the confinement of more than 400 inmates on death row in Florida brings Meehan to question the effectiveness of the deterrence.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center Web site, regions of the country with high percentages of executions have murder rates nearly doubling those of states with low death penalty executions, which suggest the death penalty has an inverse deterrence effect.
Additional questions were presented at the workshop by current TCADP president Louise Ritchie, who said she is concerned that systematic errors in Florida’s legal system may be sending innocent people to their death.
“Our legal system is not perfect,” said Ritchie. “People who were completely innocent could be convicted.”

The use of DNA evidence in death row cases has lead to 139 exonerations since the death penalty was reinstated. In many of those cases, determining innocence or error is managed by state appointed attorneys for every death row inmate. While working on death row cases, Meehan discovered a bias in her presupposed views of death row inmates; the public, she said, shares that bias. Meehan said she imagined death row inmates as monsters; however, her first encounter with inmate Richard Cooper changed her mind.

“He was a very gentle person,” Meehan said. “I expected a devil.”

She said Cooper, who has been on death row since he was 21-years-old, talked to her about being beaten with chains by an alcoholic father and often wanting to commit suicide as a child. While working with Cooper and other death row inmates, Meehan said she discovered a trend of abusive pasts and mental instability.

“As I got to know more and more people on death row through my work I have yet to find one person who has not been a victim of severe childhood abuse,” she said. “People care so much about abused children… but what happens when those children grow up, they’re not so cute and loveable anymore, but it’s really the same child.”

Meehan was quick to note that a person who commits a crime deserves to be in jail.

However, she said it is important to realize that inmates on death row are human too, and a people need to show a certain level of compassion.

That consideration is not shown when prisoners are subjected to the cruelty of the electric chair, according to Susan Gage, a former Florida Public Radio reporter who witnessed the 1996 electrocution of John E. Bush.

“The sound is something I remember profoundly,” Gage said, of the humming noise produced as thousands of volts of electricity surged through Bush’s body. Although a muzzle kept Bush from crying out, Gage said, his pain could be seen as his body pressed against the leather strap, and his tightly clenched fists remained turned under, even after he was declared to be dead.

Ron McAndrews, the prison warden who oversaw Bush’s “clean” execution, also supervised the botched execution of Pedro Medina a year later. Medina had flames shooting from the top of his head during his electrocution. McAndrews, in an article for Death Penalty Focus, a nonprofit organization against capital punishment, recalled the horrors of having to allow the execution to continue even though the situation had gone awry.

“The memory of telling the executioner to continue with the killing, despite the malfunctioning electric chair, and being at a point of no-return, plagues me still,” McAndrews wrote.

Ritchie, who helped organize the workshop, also changed her pro-death penalty stance after being exposed to the facts and procedures surrounding the death penalty. She supports life in prison for those convicted of capital crimes.

“I figured that if someone killed someone they didn’t deserve the right to live,” Ritchie said.

“I changed my mind because of the fact that everybody has there humanity and I don’t think anybody has the right to take someone unless life, unless it is in self defense.”