Poll suggests Pinellas County residents oppose the death penalty

By a more than two-to-one margin, most said they prefer that those convicted of heinous crimes face life in prison. But there's a catch.

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click to enlarge Poll suggests Pinellas County residents oppose the death penalty
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As prosecutors across the state weigh whether or not to seek the death penalty for those accused of heinous crimes, a poll suggests that residents of Pinellas County oppose it.

A Public Policy Polling survey of Pinellas County voters suggests that only 30 percent of voters favor the death penalty in murder cases while some 68 percent prefer life in prison in some capacity. About 48 percent preferred "life in prison with no parole and a requirement to work in prison and pay restitutions to the victims."

Twelve percent selected life with no parole and eight percent said they believed convicts should have the option of parole after a minimum of 40 years.

A solid majority of voters surveyed (60 percent) also said they opposed executing those with mental illness and half said they oppose putting convicts to death who are under 21.

The sample size of the poll was relatively small; just 269 Pinellas County voters were surveyed. Plus, it was conducted over January 22-23, weeks before a gunman killed 17 at Broward County's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Yet if the poll is any indication of how Pinellas County voters generally feel about the death penalty, it means their views are at odds with those of Pinellas/Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. Anti-death penalty advocates say his office has filed to seek death in 15 pending cases and six re-sentences. Nine death penalty trials are already scheduled for 2018.

Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, according to a Harvard study, are two of 16 outlier counties in terms of the number of death penalty cases that are tried there. On Jan. 23, practically as the poll was being conducted, Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren called for the death penalty for the Seminole Heights killer.

The poll could reflect the national sentiment. After all, political observers have often noted that Pinellas County is somewhat of a demographic cross-section of the rest of the country.

Most who oppose the death penalty do so out of concern over individuals who were wrongly convicted. Another concern is the taxpayer cost of keeping an individual on death row while attorneys file multiple appeals.

“After evaluating other recent polls on this issue, it has become clear that a trend has emerged in Florida as voters increasingly prefer alternatives to the death penalty. Whether due to the high cost, the legal chaos, or the risk of executing innocent people, many voters simply don’t think the death penalty is a useful tool anymore,” said Stephen K. Harper, director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at FIU College of Law, in a written statement.

In the wake of the poll, death penalty opponents have urged elected officials to reconsider employing the death penalty.

“The survey results make clear that the state attorney’s office is ignoring the will of the overwhelming majority of Pinellas County constituents who prefer life sentences for those convicted of murder," said Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. "Expensive death penalty trials do nothing to prevent violent crime, protect law enforcement, or help victims’ families in meaningful ways, and mistakes are also all-too-common.”

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