|White Liberalism, Black Civil Rights, and the Origins of Florida’s Death Penalty Moratorium, [1964-1977)|
|During the 1950s, numbers of executions continued to decline across the United States even though capital punishment was legal in forty-four jurisdictions (forty-two states, the District of Columbia, and in the federal system). Florida was an active execution state and there remained significant support for capital punishment despite the election of a governor, LeRoy Collins (1955-1960), who was willing to sign death warrants but who expressed considerable personal opposition to the death penalty. Collins’ views on the death penalty were solicited by high school students, journalists, religious leaders, civil rights protestors, and many others. Jefferson Poland wrote to Collins of his brief acquaintance with Robert Wesley Davis when both were in the Leon County jail. Poland had been arrested for participating in a lunch-counter sit-in and Davis, in the next cell, was under sentence of death for rape. Poland’s eloquent letter to Collins noted that “Wes” had spent fifteen of his twenty-nine years in state institutions, from orphanages to prison, and that society’s failures were as much to blame for this “confirmed criminal, an admitted homosexual, [and] a social outcast.” In other words, this felon had been created by societal shortcomings and neglect, and the collective failures of the state and its citizens were further underlined by the need “to exterminate him.” The governor’s response suggested the appeals process and pardon board still offered hope, and noted his own opposition to capital punishment. Davis was executed in August 1961 after Collins had left office.
Collins sought unsuccessfully to persuade the 1959 Legislature to abolish capital punishment, but members did create an interim committee to study the subject and report back to the next regular session in 1961. Persuading the conservative legislators and citizens of Florida to abolish the death penalty was a daunting task, and not surprisingly, Commission members opposed abolition. One observer told Collins in April 1960: “Nine states have defeated abolishment. Florida will be no exception. It’s going to take several years of ‘grass roots’ education despite all the optimism I ran into while the Legislature was in session.” Ultimately, “It is still ‘negro and rape’ in the background.” Executions continued in the early 1960s, but the last two took place in May 1964; there would be no further executions until 1977. This paper examines the origins of Florida's 13-year death penalty moratorium, and seeks to link developments in black civil rights protest inside and outside the criminal justice system with growing white liberal opposition to capital punishment, growing legislative concern over the operation of the state’s criminal justice system, and press and political anxieties within the state over gender and race disparities in the administration of the death penalty.
1“Executions Continue Decline,” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science 44/1 (May-June 1953): 76; Harry Millman to Honorable Leroy Collins, April 27, 1960; Jefferson Poland to Governor Collins, May 1, 1960; Governor Collins to Mr. Jefferson Poland, May 6, 1960; Bill Durden to John Perry, May 4, 1960, in Collins Administrative Correspondence, Series 776, Box 53, Florida State Archives, Tallahassee.
2 See Governor Collins to Miss Etta Freeman, March 30, 1960; Governor Collins to Mr. C. T. Anderson, Sr., October 21, 1960 and various correspondence, as well as Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Executions, 1957 – National Prisoner Statistics, Number 18, February 1958,” Dale Brothington to Governor Collins, April 2, 1960, Governor Collins to Mr. Dale Brothington, April 8, 1960, all in Collins Administrative Correspondence, Series 776, Box 53: Capital Punishment; Dyckman, Floridian of His Century, 183-186.|