Cerabino: Getting the hang of Florida’s politics is rough business

The regressive ignorance of political discourse in Florida can be breathtaking.

That was the case over the weekend when a Ron DeSantis campaign speech in Citrus County turned toward a return to lynching.

DeSantis, a North Florida congressman who is running for governor, was in the middle of painting “the four liberals” on the Florida Supreme Court as political bogeymen with a truncated, misleading version of the court’s decision to overturn the death sentence of Joseph P. Smith, who kidnapped, raped and murdered 11-year-old Carlie Brucia in Sarasota in 2004.

“They overturned it on a technicality,” DeSantis said. “They’re bending over backward to pervert the law to give this rapist and killer a second chance.”

As DeSantis stirred the pot, an audience member shouted out:

“I got a tree and a rope in my back yard!”

“Yes,” DeSantis said.

“Bring back the hanging tree!” the audience member continued.

This might have been an opportunity for an adult in the room, perhaps the federal lawmaker running for governor, to pump the brakes on this frontier-justice talk by suggesting that stringing up people from trees wasn’t a good idea.

But that didn’t happen. In fact, when asked by The Tampa Bay Times about the hanging remark, DeSantis’ spokesman dug in deeper.

“Ron thinks that Floridians should be forgiven for having some pretty strong and not at all politically correct feelings about what should happen to this animal,” his campaign staffer replied.

Not to be too picky here, but lynching isn’t “politically incorrect,” it’s a barbaric disregard for the rule of law.

It’s not like DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate, has no appreciation for the rule of law.

He was all about judicial review and the importance of due process last year when he voted for an NRA-backed measure that prevented Social Security records concerning the mentally ill, including those with schizophrenia, from being cross-referenced by the FBI in firearms background checks.

“The bureaucracy would strip them of their rights without due process,” was how DeSantis characterized the blanket flagging of the mentally ill for firearms possession.

See? He’s a big due-process guy.

Just not for the death penalty, I guess. Even though those are the cases that ought to get the most.

A real leader might have told the villagers to put down their pitchforks. Or better yet, not have inflamed them with this in the first place.

The Florida Supreme Court wasn’t “bending over backward” for Smith.

Smith, along with 389 other Florida Death Row inmates, was placed in legal limbo after the U.S. Supreme Court — not the Florida Supreme Court — ruled two years ago by a margin of 8-1 (including those liberals Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and John Roberts) that Florida’s sentencing rules for capital murder cases were unconstitutional.

It’s the jurors, not the trial judge, who ought to determine whether the convicted received a death sentence or life in prison, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.

In Florida, the 12 jurors in these cases could only recommend a sentence to the judge, and the judge could ignore it or consider evidence the jury didn’t hear before making his or her decision.

Also, of the 32 states with the death penalty, Florida was one of three that didn’t require unanimous jury verdicts to mete out death. Smith and hundreds of other Death Row inmates were sentenced in split-jury recommendations regarding death or life in prison. Two of the 12 jurors in his case recommended life in prison instead of death.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling didn’t mandate that Florida join the other states in requiring a unanimous jury vote, but the ruling caused the Florida Legislature to rewrite the state law, putting the power back in the hands of the jurors, instead of the judge.

The Republican-led Florida Senate agreed that these death penalty cases should require a unanimous jury verdict for the death sentence to be applied. So did 73 percent of Floridians in a poll commissioned by the Florida International University College of Law.

But the Florida House wanted the death sentence to apply if a minimum of 9 jurors voted for it. The two houses ended up agreeing that at least 10 of the 12 jurors had to vote for death.

However, in a subsequent case, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s death penalty verdicts needed to be unanimous.

In April, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Smith on a vote of 4-3. It doesn’t affect his conviction. He is still guilty of murder and he will remain locked away in state prison for the rest of his life, whether that comes by execution or not.

That’s the back story to DeSantis’ remark about “the four liberals” — which includes a justice appointed by a Republican governor.

Yes, judges exercised their authority as a co-equal branch of the government to weigh the constitutional issues of the law. It’s not a “technicality” for courts to interpret the law. It’s their jobs.

And while it’s fine to say you would appoint other judges, it’s not fine to politicize a child’s murder to a point where your audience suggests grabbing a rope and finding a tree as a remedy.

And all you can think to say in response is “Yes.”

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