The Bishops of Florida thank God that there is, in response to attacks on human life in all its forms, a growing awareness in our day of the incomparable dignity of the human person. This awareness has expressed itself in special efforts to protect the unborn, to care for the unwanted and retarded child and to assist the sick, the aged and the helpless poor. It is also reflected in the desire to eliminate the horrors and ravages of war. And now the moment to abolish capital punishment has reached a new stage.
On June 26 of this year in a five to four decision the United States Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional on the ground that it violates the eighth amendment's exclusion of "cruel and unusual punishment." It soon became apparent, however, that this ruling did not preclude the right of states to enact laws imposing the death penalty, provided that such laws could be constitutionally defended.
It is certainly our hope that the time is not far distant when capital punishment will be abolished altogether. Many men of good will nevertheless remain since convinced that the death penalty serves as a strong deterrent of the more heinous crimes. For this reason alone it would be unrealistic to assume that capital punishment will not be restored on a very limited basis in Florida. We therefore feel obliged to draw attention to the fact that the law's application in the past was characterized by marked unevenness. It is true that the supreme penalty was imposed on a relatively small number of criminals and that death sentences were frequently commuted to life imprisonment. But of those actually sentenced to be executed it is equally true that an unreasonably high percentage were the indigent, the friendless, and members of minority or ethnic groups.
If we recall the axiom, "justice must not be a respecter of persons," we are forced to the conclusion that justice has too often failed the test. Those who could afford skilled defense attorneys and could pay for the many appeals that could be made to higher courts were evidently successful in many cases in avoiding capital punishment. Circumstantial evidence, "voluntary" confession, and discrimination in jury selectionall of these have influenced, indirectly at least, capital conviction decisions.
The point we are making is this: If the death penalty is to be restored in Florida it is imperative that adequate workable safeguards be written into the law itself to forestall the injustices of which we have spoken. The redemptive and rehabilitative aspects of punishment should more insistently be stressed rather than its retributive aspect. Life should be taken only in extreme necessity.
We call upon both priests and people to manifest the compassion enjoined by sacred scripture. The concern they have shown for all human life is well known to us. We now ask them to extend this concern to include those also who, because of their crimes against society, are the most abandoned of men.
Finally, to the State's lawmakers we pledge our prayers that Almighty God may assist them in their difficult task of providing Florida with legislation of the kind that tempers justice with mercy and which contains adequate provisions insuring its equitable administration for all.
Coleman F. Carroll
Archbishop of Miami
Charles B. McLaughlin
Bishop of St. Petersburg
Paul F. Tanner
Bishop of St. Augustine
William D. Borders
Bishop of Orlando
Rene H. Gracida
Auxiliary Bishop of Miami