Here we go again; Florida is cranking up its killing machine. A few weeks ago Florida’s governor “chaingang” Charlie Crist signed two more death warrants; scheduling both David Johnston and John Marek for execution in May. As I write this John Marek has just been granted a stay of execution – but David Johnston remains under the gun and on death watch. (by the time this article was received and typed up David Johnston has also received a stay of execution)
Since governor Crist took office in January 2007 he has shown unexpected restraint in signing the death warrants of Florida’s condemned. As a long time conservative Republican politician who has often voiced his strong support for the death penalty most of us had expected governor Crist to aggressively pursue executions- to be own version of George W Bush, another conservative Republican who paved his way to the white house of ordering the execution of 157 men and women while serving as the governor of Texas. Of course we all know how well that worked out when George W Bush then went on to become the President of the United States.
Few familiar with the death penalty could deny that capital punishment is really about is the politics of death. The true nature of our so called “democracy” is that nothing can win an election in the south quicker than jumping up on a soapbox and start foaming at the mouth while promising the good citizens of these redneck states that you will kill more people.
It’s difficult to really understand the mentality of people in the south. If you were to meet most of them on the street they’d appear to be good, God-fearing Christians who place great value in the concept of compassion towards their fellow men. Most will proudly call themselves Christians and will pack themselves into their chosen church every Sunday.
There is a lot to be admired about most southern folks – but then there’s that dark side of the southern states, only a generation or two removed from the undeniable racism and even slavery that was not so long ago all too common. As sweet and pleasant as these southern might be, there is still a lot of deep-rooted hate and bigotry in the hearts of those that gather for their Sunday socials on the lawn of their local southern Baptist Church.
It doesn’t take much to bring this hate and bigotry out. In today’s world it’s now politically unpopular to use specific racially derogatory names and characterizations, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not still in their hearts. This insidiously inbred hate is passing along from generation to generation and manifests itself in the most subtle of ways that most of those who actually participate perpetuating this hate don’t even see it for what it is.
The death penalty is one of those catalysts that will quickly expose this hate in the hearts of those southern belles and their gentlemen. And politicians down here in the Deep South feed off of the barely concealed bigotry – and I’m afraid that Governor Crist is no exception.
It wasn’t so long ago that Gov. Crist was an ambitious and up and coming politician. For many years he shamelessly exploited the politics of death by proudly campaigning in support of the death penalty. Over the years he earned the name “Chaingang Charlie” as a state legislator as he campaigned for the elimination of early releases and expedited executions. He built his political career on the blood and misery of those imprisoned and condemned. He became the pretty boy poster child of the quintessential southern politician, with his puppy dog eyes and his cold-blooded heart.
After serving first as a State Representative then as a State Senator, Charlie Crist went on to become Florida’s Attorney General – the “top cop” responsible for among other things fighting appeals filed by death row prisoners and seeking to carry out their executions. It seemed that “Chaingang Charlie” was made for that job.
In 2006 Florida needed a new Governor as Republican Jeb Bush (younger brother of George W Bush) had served the legal maximum of 8 years. It came as no surprise when Charlie Crist tossed his hat into the running with the blessing and backing of the Bush family and their political money machine. Sure enough, Chaingang Charlie became the new Governor of the state of Florida.
Those of us on death row saw this as a dark cloud on the horizon, certain that Charlie Crist would come gunning for us and Florida would son become another Texas, where executions are so common that they don’t even warrant a byline on the evening news. One particularly talented artist on Florida’s death row even drew a blank ink drawing of the Grim Reaper – with Charlie Crist’s face clearly showing beneath the black hooded robe.
But then Chaingang Charlie surprised us. Just before he was sworn in as the elected
Governor in January 2007 Florida executed Angel Diaz in a “botched” execution that witnesses testified left Diaz writhing in pain and conscious of his physical torment for over 30 minutes. Lawyers quickly filed petitions arguing that Florida’s lethal injection protocol constituted cruel and unusual punishment thus making the death penalty unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court got involved and all executions came to a quick halt.
To our surprise, Governor Crist public ally supported a moratorium of all execution in Florida until a commission could determine what went wrong when Angel Diaz was executed and how it could be prevented from happening again.
As Crist got comfortable in his new office, he surprised us even further by public ally supporting a proposed law allowing for monetary compensation to those who had been wrongfully convicted and signing an executive order making it easier for previously convicted felons to have their civil rights – including the right to vote – restored.
As the months, then first few years, passed Governor Crist showed surprising and completely unexpected restraint in signing any death warrants, and even seemed to focus only upon a few cases in which the condemned prisoner had committed an act of rape and murder on a child and guilt was not a question.
Then an unprecedented 4 vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court opened up and for the first time in Florida’s history a single governor had the opportunity to virtually handpick the majority (4 of the 7) justices. Governor Crist’s conservative Republicans could almost be seen foaming at the mouth over this opportunity to stock the court with hardcore conservative judicial activists who would have the majority power to steamroll their ideological causes – outlaw abortion, expedite executions, and privatize government.
The dark clouds on the horizon seemed even more ominous and we just knew that the conservative killing machine would crank up and slaughter our ranks without mercy.
But again governor Crist proved to be unpredictable. His first two appointments to the Florida Supreme Court (Canady and Polston) were straight out of the rank and file extreme pro-death penalty conservative Republican insiders, both long time Bush family supporters. The conservatives who put Chaingang Charlie were proud of their good ole boy and just knew that in coming months they would have control over the Florida Supreme Court.
I only wish I could have been a fly on the wall in the Good Ole Boy’s clubhouse when much to their surprise and dismay Governor Crist rejected the next two handpicked conservative judicial nominees and instead selected a moderate Cuban – American from South Florida, and (gasp!) a “liberal» black man from Central Florida.
Suddenly the very conservatives puppet masters who put Chaingang Charlie in the Governor’s office were screaming “traitor”, openly accusing good ole Charlie of being a closet “liberal” (in conservative politics there is nothing lower than being called a “liberal”) and vowing to end Governor Crist’s career.
Not long after this political backlash Crist suddenly began to act like a conservative politician again, first ordering the execution of Wayne (“Grey Cloud”) Tompkins, who may have been innocent, but was never the less an easy execution. And just a few months later, for the first time since taking office, he signed two death warrants the same day.
All of this brings us back to the one question – after several years in office, why has Governor Crist suddenly become more aggressive in signing death warrants and attempting to expedite more executions?
I believe that the answer to that question is simple enough – southern politics. See, in Florida the Governor’s race is run each 4 years, and next year (2010) Gov. Crist must run again for re-election. Political campaigns require huge amounts of cash and next year’s governor’s race has already begun. If Crist wants to run and win re-election, he must suck up to his supporters now. This is how the politics of death are played. Here in the south all politicians know with absolute certainty that the only way to win and elected office is to suck up to these God – fearing southern Baptists and promise to kill the condemned. That beast within them, that inbred need for hate and bigotry must be fed and with racism and other forms of bigotry now outlawed the only way to manifest this hate in a politically and socially acceptable way is to call upon the killing machine and carry out more executions.
David Johnston now awaits in a solitary cell only steps away from the death chamber – in a cell I myself had once occupied when I too faced the Grim Reaper, but make no mistake about it – David Johnston is not facing imminent execution for any crime he may (or may not!) have committed. Rather, David Johnston is merely the latest led to the slaughter to appease the blood thirst of these pro-death penalty conservatives so that Governor Crist can win their support in his own upcoming political campaign for re-election. That’s what it is really all about - the politics of death and those of us who are condemned are merely the helpless pawns.