"Write what you know" is the cardinal rule of creative writing, and it would seem to be even more important in the writing of legislation. Bad literature can be ignored; bad law, not so much. State Rep Dave Kerner has taken that thought to heart.
Kerner (D-Palm Springs) has played a major role in current efforts to rewrite Florida death penalty legislation, so he made it a point to be at Florida State Prison in Raiford on April 10 to watch prison officials, on behalf of the citizens of Florida, administer a lethal dose of chemicals to 59-year old Larry Eugene Mann. It had been more than 32 years since Mann murdered 10-year-old Elisa Nelson with a single blow to the head.
>Kerner's part in death penalty matters was first made public through news accounts of GOP attempts to rewrite state law.
In early March, Kerner, who sits on the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, was part of a death penalty working group with committee chair Matt Gaetz (R-Ft. Walton Beach) and James Grant (R-Tampa). The group proposed two measures to speed up the executioner's assembly line. One would have cut short the time limits on death penalty appeals. The other called for a Constitutional amendment to have the Legislature rather than the Florida Supreme Court make the rules for the appeals process.
It was confusing. Why would a local Democratic legislator lend a bi-partisan color to this unwise, unjust, "tough-on-crime," judiciary-bashing? Fire Ant wrote (as a private citizen) to every local party leader we could, calling Kerner a "fig leaf for the GOP/Taliban." Someone passed the message on to him and he wrote back.
First he said thank you. Then he gave us (politely) an earful. He explained that committee rules require that working groups include reps of both parties "whether they agree with the final product or not." He continued:
You will find NO ONE that opposes HB 7081 more than me. One of the main reasons I ran for office was the meddling of the legislature in the powers of the judiciary...
I wanted to be on the Death Penalty workgroup because I had heard they (republicans) wanted to do a constitutional amendment taking rule power making from the Supreme Court. This angered me. Thus, I met with Chairman Gaetz for hours trying to get him to remove the constitutional amendment portion. He kept it. I did everything I could in the work group to kill the constitutional amendment. The republicans kept it. I did everything I could to kill it during the committee meeting, including speaking loudly against it. The republicans voted for it...
For those members of the community who watched the committee meeting, you would have seen me speak out harshly, defiantly, and with much frustration against the constitutional amendment.
As events unfolded, the proposal to amend the Constitution was withdrawn, in deference to a death penalty appeals study group created by Florida Chief Justice Ricky Polston. Gaetz credited that decision "largely to the work" of Kerner and Grant.
In follow-up emails, Kerner, a former law enforcement officer, said he is not completely opposed to the death penalty but that he believes it should be used "as little as possible." He said that if it was "the will of [his] district" he would vote to abolish it.
Almost as a footnote, he added, "I went to see an execution last week. I thought it was important to have witnessed one if I am going to legislate in this area."
How did it come about? Was it gut-wrenching? Did it change his thinking? Kerner replied:
It was not gut wrenching, I don't think. It was, in fact, pretty sanitized and almost peaceful. I was brought into a white, bare room, with a wall a/c unit (which was very loud). I sat there for about 30 minutes waiting with the family and about four press members. In front of us was a glass window with a curtain over it. Once they were ready to proceed, they lifted the curtain. On a bed lay the accused, strapped in and covered in a white sheet. He was allowed to say his final words, [but] he didn't have any. He just said "No sir," when asked if he had anything to say.
Then the warden said they would now carry out the sentence, and he basically appeared to fall asleep. A doctor came in and pronounced him dead about 15 minutes later.
The accused was Larry Eugene Mann. He was convicted in 1980, three years before I was born. He beat and killed a 10 year old girl. I spent about 2 hours with the victim's family. They were so angry that it took 33 years to put the killer to death. Chairman Gaetz went with me, as did my aide. We all were moved by their passion for making the process easier and quicker.
Though it was impactful, the execution did not move me much emotionally. I have seen people die in a much more horrific and presumably painful ways while I was a police officer. I held a man's hand as he died in front of me in a motorcycle crash. I've delivered next of kin notifications to mothers. It was a tough job. But the execution was moving in the sense that it made the fact that we as a society and government take people's lives. It is a difficult concept, but the execution helped me to deal with legislating in this area.
In a phone call, we asked Kerner if the apparent ease of the execution and the victim's family's feelings left him more in favor of capital punishment.
Regarding the condemned, he said, "It appeared painless but who knows? It was comforting but also more real. You get to spend ten or 15 minutes looking in the eyes of a man who's going to die and knows he's going to die -- it doesn't necessarily make it easier to support [the death penalty]."
Regarding the family he said, "They were angry before. There was a lot of waiting around, two or three hours waiting on a last-minute ruling from the Supreme Court. After the procedure was all over, there was a lot of crying."
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.