Death of death row inmate fuels debate

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Many death row inmates in Florida will die of natural causes, not by an executioner's needle. The recent death of one inmate is fueling debate on both sides of the capital punishment argument.

Sentenced to death, Tommy Wyatt probably thought his life would end strapped to a table. But the 49-year-old died before he could feel the stinging needle or the fatal drugs.

"All over the state we do have inmates die. It's not just death row," said Ann Howard, of the Florida Department of Corrections.

Howard said it's not uncommon for a condemned man to die before his sentence is carried out.

"With almost 100,000 inmates, that shouldn't surprise anybody, that is going to happen," she said.

Since the death penalty was reinstated, 74 people have been executed in Florida. Nearly 40 have died before their death warrants were signed.

The Florida Catholic Conference says their deaths prove justice can be served without executions.

"It's severe punishment to remain on death row for the remainder of your life, and that again goes to speak to what we are saying that you can be punished by staying in prison for the rest of your life verses being executed," conference spokeswoman Sheila Hopkins said.

Supporters of the death penalty say the fact that people are dying before the state can kill them means the system's broken. They want to see more executions.

The state kills about two inmates a year. The average wait time for an execution is 13 years.

"If we are not going to get rid of it, let's at least fix it so we don't have this blight on our justice system where we have people hanging around 25 or 30 years without any end in sight," Rep. Matt Gaetz said.

Earlier this month, state lawmakers rejected a bill to end capital punishment. With the repeal bill dead, the focus shifts to how the process can be improved.

One death penalty reform idea with a chance of passing this upcoming legislative session is the unanimous jury bill. Right now, Florida is the only state in the union where someone can be sentenced to die with a jury vote of seven to five.

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