- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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June 12

The Palm Beach Post on State Rep. Mike Hill’s controversial comments about the LGBTQ community:

In the state of Florida, it is illegal to discriminate in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of race, sex, religion, age, national origin, handicap, pregnancy or marital status.



But it is not illegal to so discriminate against someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

This is a gaping hole in Florida legal protections that civil rights advocates have been trying for a decade to plug with legislation. But this year, once again, a bill - the Florida Competitive Workforce Act to simply address employment discrimination - didn’t even get a hearing in the Republican-led state legislature.

We present Exhibit A for why such a law is needed: State Rep. Mike Hill.

Last month, the Panhandle Republican with a knack for controversy, got caught on tape laughing off a suggestion that society resume the ancient practice of stoning gay people.

The reprehensible comment came at a town hall event in Pensacola with a group called Women for Responsible Legislation. A constituent incorrectly stated that 1 Corinthians in the Bible says “a man who has an affair with another man will be put to death.”

“It says that in the Old Testament, too,” Hill replied.

“Can you introduce legislation?” the constituent asked.

Hill and others laughed, then Hill said, “I wonder how that would go over?”

The freshman lawmaker first denied even having had the encounter. Then a Pensacola News Journal columnist confronted him with the audio clip. Hill spent the next few days stating that he was taken out of context, the whole controversy was merely “fake news,” and that he was a victim of a “social media lynching.”

Not a word for the real victims here: those colleagues of his in the Legislature who are gay; any constituents in House District 1 who are gay; law-abiding, hardworking, taxpaying Florida citizens who must endure the consequences of such narrow-minded, divisive thinking.

After days of public criticism from Republicans and Democrats, Hill issued a statement that said, in part, “I apologize for not directly responding to the fact that the premise for this question was inaccurate. I deeply regret how the tone of my response to a constituent was received at this event.”

Note that Hill is apologizing not for laughing at the constituent’s comment, but for failing to correct a misquoted Bible verse.

Hill should resign. But he likely won’t. The Republican leadership should force him to resign. But they likely won’t.

They have criticized him. “Such callous indifference to an outrageous question is unacceptable, runs contrary to our founding principles, and in no way reflects the beliefs of the Republican caucus in the Florida House,” Speaker Jose Oliva and House Rules Chairman Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said in a joint statement. Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said Hill “owes his colleagues an apology and he owes the Republican caucus a better example of political courage.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis followed up by telling reporters, “I support Speaker Oliva’s comments and I trust the speaker to take whatever action is necessary.”

Those words aren’t enough. They could show some real leadership by censuring Hill, and stripping him of his committee assignments.

After all, it’s not as though Hill is a first-time offender. He once suggested that we replace the acronym “LGBTQ” with a question mark to “cover the whole thing.” He said members of the European Union leadership “all cross their legs like they are gay.” And he said, “America is already being judged, witness the homosexual movement and abortion.”

This is far from the tolerance and open-mindedness that we should expect from our legislative leaders. Indeed, it is more reflective of an intolerance and indifference that feed a hateful cancer on our society.

That’s why state legislators need to follow the lead of dozens of municipalities in passing a bill like the proposed Florida Competitive Workforce Act to ensure that LGBTQ individuals have the law on their side if they are refused a job by the kind of person who thinks stoning homosexuals is a good idea.

We might be swayed that state lawmakers care about protecting the rights of all Floridians, no matter their sexual orientation, if they were to take this first step. We might actually be convinced that attitudes like Hill’s “in no way reflects the beliefs of the Republican caucus.”

As Pasco County Republican state Rep. Amber Mariano said in a tweet, “this is the perfect example of why we need to pass the Competitive Workforce Act - so that hate like this won’t impact the environment, housing, etc. of our LGBT community.”

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat representing Orange County, agreed, telling Florida Phoenix that the Hill incident shows exactly why it’s important that LGBTQ people have protections in state law.

“People like Mike Hill and his constituent who suggested that we stone gay people to death are employers, they are business owners and they are landlords who discriminate against LGBTQ people daily - and they’re allowed to do that legally because the Legislature hasn’t taken action to pass the Florida Competitive Workforce Act. I can’t think of another way to prove our point.”

Neither can we.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com

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June 10

The Miami Herald on the Florida death penalty and wrongful convictions:

There are 340 people on Florida’s death row. Without a thorough investigation into the state’s criminal justice system and a full review of every capital conviction, the next execution could be of an innocent person. Many state leaders seem OK with that.

Those leaders, like Gov. Ron DeSantis, should binge watch some television. “When They See Us,” a four-part series on Netflix dramatizing the infamous case of the Central Park Five - five young black and Latino boys falsely accused and wrongfully convicted of the brutal rape of a New York jogger in 1989 - vividly demonstrates how badly flawed the justice system in America can be.

It took more than a decade for the boys’ unjust convictions to be overturned, but the damage to their lives and reputations can never be repaired. It could have been worse, though. The oldest boy was tried as an adult. He could have received the death penalty - and he could have been executed before he was exonerated.

One of the most compelling arguments against the death penalty is that an execution cannot be undone if it turns out an inmate was wrongly convicted. That potential should be especially concerning in Florida, where more death-row inmates have been exonerated than in any other state.

In March, Clifford Williams Jr. became the 29th person exonerated from Florida’s death row since the 1970s. Prosecutors now say he didn’t commit the crime he was convicted of - after he spent 42 years in prison.

Florida has, almost certainly, executed innocent men. Leo Jones might have been one of them. He was executed in 1998 for the murder of a police officer even though one of the main witnesses against him had recanted and there were allegations that his confession came only after a brutal beating by the police officers who interrogated him.

Given that there appears to be no political will to end the death penalty in Florida - one of only about five states that still regularly executes prisoners - restoring confidence in the integrity of the system that puts people on death row is paramount. Gov. DeSantis, a death penalty supporter who recently signed a bill making it harder for ex-felons to vote, should order a review of death-row exonerations and other wrongful convictions.

But instead of doing that, he has appointed three conservative justices to the Florida Supreme Court who might lead the court in reversing a decision about retroactively resentencing death row inmates. The issue arises from a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that allowing judges - not juries - to decide if the facts warranted a death sentence violated the accused men’s right to trial by jury. The state therefore began reviewing death sentences back to 2002, but that state Supreme Court justices seem poised to stop that.

When the state executes a convict, it is acting on behalf of every resident of Florida, and if the state is wrong, it stains all of us. Such an act must rest on a firm, unassailable foundation. There must be absolute confidence that the system is fair, just and devoted to the truth.

There can be no such confidence in the current system.

Online: https://www.miamiherald.com

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June 8

The Florida Times-Union on the charges against Parkland school resource officer Scot Peterson:

It’s clear that the school resource officer who failed to act at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland should be held to account.

Scot Peterson has resigned from his job. He is being sued in several civil cases. But should he be held criminally liable as well? That appears to be a radical interpretation of a law that is normally not used against police officers.

Yet after about a 15-month investigation, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement charged Peterson with seven counts of child neglect and three counts of culpable negligence. Peterson was accused of perjury in connection with lying to investigators about shots being fired at the school on Feb. 14, 2018.

Police officers and others in the criminal justice system have great amounts of discretion; society generally gives them wide latitude in recognition that their job requires fast action under stressful conditions. In Peterson’s case, it required him to react immediately in a combat situation.

He didn’t.

“There can be no excuse for his complete inaction and no question that his inaction cost lives,” said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen in a statement regarding Peterson.

The 41-page affidavit notes that Peterson had been a school resource officer for the Broward County sheriff’s office for eight years. He had received a great deal of training. In fact, his first of several “active shooter” training sessions occurred in 2007.

According to the training videos quoted in the affidavit, the deputies are advised, “Every time you hear a gunshot in an active shooter incident, you have to believe that is another victim being killed.”

Because the shooter is seeking to inflict as much damage as quickly as possible, the officer is expected to quickly engage in order to (1) force the suspect to surrender, (2) force the suspect into a barricade so that a SWAT team can take over or (3) shoot the suspect or have the suspect kill himself.

In any case, quick action by the officer can result in an end to the killing. Peterson did not engage; the killing continued.

There is some controversy over what Peterson heard and what he thought he heard. In any case, surveillance video showed him in an outside hallway between two buildings while the shootings were taking place inside the school.

Peterson has said he thought shooting was happening outside, that there was a sniper. Peterson’s lawyer said he was not legally responsible for caring for the children under the statute, and that no police officer has ever been prosecuted in such situations, reported The Associated Press. And Broward County’s policies stated that deputies “may” enter an active shooter area rather than being required to do so.

Mark O’Mara, the lawyer who successfully defended George Zimmerman - the man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin - said in USA Today that Peterson was basically in a war zone and training often isn’t effective.

In contrast, four officers from the Coral Springs Police Department entered the building.

Those critical of the charges say that Peterson is being used as a scapegoat for society’s difficulties in preventing these mass shooter incidents and that these charges could be used as a precedent against officers in the future. A Wall Street Journal editorial, titled “The Coward of Broward,” ends by saying “even cowards have rights.”

The fact is, however, that the reaction to Parkland has been much broader than the lack of reaction by Peterson. The Broward County sheriff was removed. New legislation was passed that was spurred by public pressure from Parkland.

It is clear that this case is unusual and should be considered with great care.

A police officer must be prepared to die - and one who is guarding students at a school must be prepared to act.

Nobody knows how they would react in such a pressure-filled situation. And this indicates the difficulty of expecting a lightly trained civilian or teacher to act properly in combat.

Therefore, the best solution is to allow a jury of Peterson’s peers to make the final decision.

A jury should decide whether Peterson should go to prison for his lack of response.

Online: https://www.jacksonville.com

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