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During its 2016 national convention in Orlando, the Democratic Party added abolishing the death penalty to its official party platform. But five years later, Democratic candidates vying to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis are breaking with that stance.
As the gunman in Florida’s deadliest school shooting faces a possible death sentence, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Miami Sen. Annette Taddeo all say they would support the death penalty in the most egregious of cases — and none supported the idea of abolishing death row.
In Florida, which has one of the nation’s most active death rows in the country, with a population currently at 305 total inmates, politicians have a history of being lukewarm or inconsistent on the issue. For example, in 2006, then-Governor Crist said he supported the death penalty and pledged to “carry out the law,” even if it was a “very solemn task.” During his administration, five prisoners were executed.
But Crist, now a Democrat campaigning to recover a job he once held as a Republican, has been more nuanced on his position this time around. Last week, he rolled out the second half of his “Justice For All” criminal justice plan, which included a section on overturning wrongful convictions by funding the expansion of conviction review units in every court circuit.
Recently, Fried was asked about her stance on the state’s death penalty laws at two different virtual events hosted by local Democratic groups. Her answers varied slightly.
While she expressed concerns over certain parts of the state’s criminal justice system as a whole, Fried stopped short of explicitly supporting an end to the death penalty altogether during a June 15 meeting of the Manasota Young Democrats.
She said she is “committed” to getting it “right,” and that “there’s been too many problems in the past” with the way the death penalty has been carried out in Florida. Fried did say, however, that there are exceptions to her stance.
“If somebody has confessed and there is literally no doubt whatsoever, I think that’s a different situation,” she told the group.
Last Tuesday, Fried spoke to the Coral Gables Democratic Club and gave a slightly different answer.
Fried told the group that she differs from Charlie Crist in her “consistent message” and that the death penalty needs to be examined. She did not bring up exceptions to the death penalty.
“I’m not going tell you I’m against the death penalty here and you’re going to hear another statement later on from me saying I’m not,” she said during the Oct. 12 meeting.
The meeting came a day after Crist unveiled the first part of his criminal justice policy plan, which does not directly address the death penalty in Florida.
The conversation is top of mind again, after Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder on Wednesday. He now faces a death penalty trial by jury, which must unanimously agree to impose a death sentence.
In Florida, the governor must sign a death warrant for an inmate to be executed.
While none of the top three Democratic candidates running for governor weighed in on Cruz’s plea, Taddeo and Crist both said they thought the death penalty should be considered in his case.
“In cases like these, I believe the death penalty is an appropriate punishment. But I don’t take that position lightly. As Governor, one of the toughest parts of the job was signing a death warrant. It is a punishment that should be used sparingly, reserved for the most heinous crimes,” Crist said in a statement to the Herald.
Meanwhile, Taddeo acknowledged the Innocence Project, a New York-based nonprofit legal organization that works to overturn wrongful convictions, did important work to review cases of individuals who are wrongly incarcerated.
“I do believe the death penalty should be seldom invoked, though this week we were reminded in the MSD [Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School] Parkland case that the death penalty rightfully will be on the table,” Taddeo said in a text message.
Fried declined to comment on the Cruz case, saying it would be “inappropriate to weigh in” as the judge and jury consider his sentence.
In a statement to the Miami Herald, Fried said Florida’s criminal justice system is “in serious need of reform” and noted that the death penalty is applied disproportionately against people of color.
“However, I do believe that the death penalty should be applied in cases when the crimes are particularly heinous, and when guilt can be ascertained beyond all doubt,” Fried’s statement said.
Bentonne Snay, president of the Coral Gables Democratic Club, said the group had hoped Fried would denounce the death penality for being immoral, but was pleased with her answer that she sees problems with the death penalty under the current system.
Manasota Young Democrats president, Peter Ryan Emhoff, said members wished Fried had taken a stronger stance in denouncing the death penalty altogether.
His group does not endorse gubernatorial candidates, but can give recommendations to the state-level Florida Young Democrats, who nominate.
“The fact that she wasn’t taking a firm position, that she seemed to be wishy-washy on it … there was some disappointment with that answer with our membership,” he said. “Hopefully she is not just saying it to one group and saying a different thing to another.”