A death penalty landmark for Florida: Executing a white man for killing a black man – Washington Post

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NoneMark James Asay. (Florida Department of Corrections via AP)

Since Florida reinstated the death penalty in 1976, at least 18 black men have been executed for killing white victims there, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center.

But in Florida’s modern history no white man has been executed for killing a black victim.

On Thursday, Mark James Asay — a former member of a prison white supremacist gang and once inked with a swastika tattoo — is scheduled to become the first, by way of lethal injection with a drug never before used in a U.S. execution.

Statistics showing racial disparities in application of the death sentence have been among the chief weapons of capital punishment opponents, like Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference NAACP, who told the Miami Herald that Asay’s historical case only highlights how black inmates are disproportionately sentenced.

She told the newspaper that even Asay shouldn’t be executed.

And Asay’s sentence won’t undo the past, Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told the Associated Press.

“This does nothing to change the 170-year-long history of Florida not executing whites for killing blacks,” Elliot said.

Nationally, the racial pattern of death sentences, while not so stark as it is in Florida, leans sharply the same way. Since 1976, 20 whites have been executed for murdering blacks, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, while 288 blacks have been put to death for killing whites.

Asay was convicted in 1988 of two racially motivated murders on the same night in Jacksonville, Fla. Witnesses and a jail house informant testified that Asay used racial slurs during the first murder and after the second. The jury, unanimous in its verdict, sentenced him to death by a 9-3 vote.

But his execution date was delayed for nearly two years, caught in legal limbo over a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined Florida’s death penalty system was unconstitutional. In Hurst v. Florida, the high court ruled that the state’s sentencing scheme gave too much power to judges over juries. Executions screeched to a halt while Florida lawmakers crafted new legislation — twice — that ultimately required a jury to unanimously agree before sentencing someone to death.

The Hurst decision left hundreds of capital punishment cases in limbo. Eventually the state supreme court ruled that only inmates sentenced to death after 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a different death penalty case, would be allowed new hearings.

Asay was not one of those inmates. His attorneys appealed the decision without success.

Asay will be the first death row inmate to die in Florida since the Hurst decision, which was issued more than 18 months ago. He’ll also be the first to die by Florida’s new execution drug cocktail, a combination of etomidate, rocuronium bromide and potassium acetate, reported the Associated Press.

Etomidate has never been used in an execution before, Jen Moreno, a lethal injection expert who works as a staff attorney at the University of California at Berkeley Law School’s death penalty clinic, told the AP. It will be administered first, followed by the paralytic rocuronium bromide. Finally, the potassium acetate will stop the heart.

Moreno said there are “outstanding questions” about whether etomidate, an anesthetic, will “do what it needs to do during an execution.”

“The state hasn’t provided any information about why it has selected this drug,” Moreno told the AP.

The Florida Supreme Court signed off on the drug and Assay appealed, but was rejected. In a dissenting opinion, one state justice wrote that the execution was rushed and Asay was being treated as “the proverbial guinea pig of its newest lethal injection protocol,” reported the News Service of Florida.

But state corrections officials defended the choice.

“The Florida Department of Corrections follows the law and carries out the sentence of the court,” Michelle Glady, the Florida Department of Corrections’ spokeswoman, said in a statement to the AP. “This is the Department’s most solemn duty and the foremost objective with the lethal injection procedure is a humane and dignified process.”

Another appeal, unanimously rejected earlier this week, stemmed from the double-murder case’s racial implications. For decades, Asay’s victims, 34-year-old Robert Lee Booker and 26-year-old Robert McDowell, were classified in legal documents as black. Their race, prosecutors argued, was what motivated Asay’s violent behavior in 1987.

But, it turns out, McDowell was biracial — white and Hispanic — not black.

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