The Penalty that Degrades America
July 10, 2012
Florida State Prison, in the small town of Starke, is a sprawling mass of gray concrete and barbed wire, approached by a road lined with palm trees and lush greenery. “This is what I call the green mile,” says my guide Rosalie Bolin, “but at the end of it is hell.” The prison houses death row and the execution chamber.
On the green mile we pass a hearse that, she tells me, is used exclusively by the prison. “No one wants to have their loved ones in a vehicle that has carried murderers,” she says. “People see them as inhumane, and that is how they are treated, even in death.”
Bolin has been involved in preparing mitigation arguments for defendants in capital cases for more than 20 years. There are currently 400 men and four women on death row in Florida and I am visiting Starke to explore America’s shifting opinion on capital punishment.
Capital punishment was suspended in the US from 1972 to 1976. Since the suspension was lifted, 1,280 people have been executed, most since 1990, though only 78 death sentences were passed in 2011, compared to 312 in 1995. Since 1973 more than 130 people have been released from death row after their convictions were overturned. From 2000-11, exonerations have averaged five a year.
A majority of Floridians support the death penalty and opinion, unsurprisingly, is divided along political and religious lines. Three-quarters of Republican voters support state execution compared to just under half of Democrats. Catholics oppose the death penalty more than non-Catholics. Age is also a factor: Americans under the age of 30 are less likely to support the death penalty.
According to Bolin the death penalty perpetuates a view of inmates as monsters beyond redemption or rehabilitation and has no place in a civilised society. “This grotesque system of ours is about stamping out irritants, similar to how you would a spider. It has nothing to do with so-called justice. It is barbaric revenge.”
Such is Bolin’s disgust with the death penalty that she walked out on her lawyer husband and four daughters and in 1996 married one of her clients, Oscar Bolin, a convicted killer and rapist, who had been on death row for five years. Their marriage was broadcast on national TV, she in a lace wedding dress, he on speakerphone behind bars.
She is on record as saying it was meant to be a statement of “great personal sacrifice” that would draw attention to what she thought was a terrible injustice. It was never an infatuation: “People thought the wrong thing.” The marriage never accomplished what she had hoped and has overshadowed her subsequent mitigation work. I have the feeling that Bolin, who spent years trying to prove her husband’s innocence, regrets her grand gesture.
Starke, near Jacksonville, has a population of less than 6,000. The vast majority is Southern Baptist, and most adults keep a licensed gun at home to protect them against intruders. At the Starke Rotary Club the members say grace and swear allegiance to the American flag before tucking into baked ham, corn bread and sweet iced tea. Mike, like the majority of Starke residents, has worked in the Floridian prison system. He was an engineer who helped maintain the electric chair, known in Florida as “Old Sparky”. He tells me how he had tears in his eyes the first time he saw a death row prisoner prepare for execution. “But then the guard took me to one side and told me he had raped a little girl in front of her mamma and then filleted her like a fish,” says Mike. “From that day on I felt nothing for them.”
Now that prisoners in Florida can choose between lethal injection and electrocution, the electric chair has not been used since 1999. Anonymous men in black robes and hoods are paid $150 to administer the injection after careful selection and training.
Enforcing the death penalty costs Florida $51 million a year, which is more than it would cost to punish all first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole. The reason is that death row inmates in the US usually spend more than a decade awaiting execution: some serve 20 years or more. Oscar Bolin is a case in point. Three previous convictions and two death sentences for the murder of Natalie Holley did not survive appeals. He was recently found guilty in a fourth trial of her second-degree murder and remains on death row for the murders of two other young women. A 2009 poll commissioned by the Death Penalty Information Centre found that police chiefs considered the death penalty the least efficient use of taxpayers’ money…