Voices: Marshall Frank

“I’m no bleeding heart. I worked in Dade County Homicide for 16 of my 30 years on the job, and saw it all….”

“I’m no bleeding heart. I worked in Dade County Homicide for 16 of my 30 years on the job, and saw it all: dead babies, mutilated bodies, multiple murders, torture deaths, random killings, and hundreds of autopsies. I arrested, or assisted in arresting, hundreds of murderers and rapists.”

Not exactly the opening you would expect to read in an editorial calling for Florida to end its death penalty, but that’s how retired Miami-Dade County Police Detective Marshall Frank started off his op-ed, “Ending Death Penalty is Right in Every Way” in Florida Today last month.

Frank says it’s important to him that people realize he’s not a “bleeding heart liberal” who has no real familiarity with the criminal justice system, and simply opposes the death penalty on philosophical grounds. His feelings about capital punishment began to evolve after he retired from the department, but continued to follow the criminal justice system, and came to the realization that the system just doesn’t work.

“It’s so screwed up, so unmanageable. To live on death row for so many years is torture, and there is no guarantee that an innocent person won’t be executed,” he says. “The state just shouldn’t be in the business of killing people.”

After his retirement, Frank decided to fulfill a lifelong dream, and began writing, nonfiction as well as novels. For research for one of his books, he had a scene on death row, and wanting a first-hand account of conditions there, he wrote to 15 Florida death row inmates asking them to describe their living conditions. Almost all wrote back, including an inmate he calls Jim, who pleaded with him to investigate his case, insisting he was innocent. Frank agreed, and during the course of his investigation made his first visit to death row. What he saw was hellish.

“His cell was the size of a walk-in closet, about 7 by 9 feet. There are no windows, there’s no air conditioning, the only air comes through a vent in the ceiling, and in Florida, between June and September, the temperature is sky-high, it can be 120 degrees. He told me he would soak his sheet in the toilet and drape it over his head in an effort to tolerate the heat. He swelters day and night, day and night. It’s when I realized how dead death row was.”

Frank says the inmates are in their cells 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except for two showers a week, and two one-hour walks, alone, in a small yard. No socialization is allowed, except for visitors. “If a convict is not crazy, he may likely go crazy,” Frank says. “Jim was convicted in 1987. He’s still there.”

Frank said his investigation led him to believe that Jim had been convicted on bad evidence and had the “worst lawyer imaginable,” but he also was convinced that Jim was guilty of killing an 11-year-old girl. Nevertheless, he says his sentence, like that of all the others on death row, should be commuted to a sentence of life without parole.

“A person who is 19 years old and commits a terrible crime, and is sentenced to death, and spends the next 30, 40 years on death row, is not the same person he was when he’s 62 and about to be executed. A couple of years ago, a guy who was about to be executed said, ‘The person who committed this crime should be punished to the maximum. What he did was terrible. But the person who is standing here today is not that person. I’m not the same person I was.’ ”

In his op-ed, Frank lists six reasons why the death penalty should be abolished. He points out that studies have shown it’s not a deterrent, that it’s two to three times more expensive than life without parole, that it is unfairly and arbitrarily applied, that the risk of executing an innocent person is great, that we are in the company of countries like China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the number of people we execute.

But number six is the one that he feels most strongly about. “There is the torture factor. America considers waterboarding as torture. Records indicate that a total of three terrorist suspects were waterboarded during the Bush II years. Compare a death row cell, where 2,905 inmates dwell, 55 of whom are women. I submit that living on death row is punishment beyond humane.”

Frank says the reaction to his op-ed has been what he expected. “A few said put them to death now, eye for an eye. But I write articles for nothing so I can say exactly what I think. I just render my opinions, and they’re not based on money, or favors, or public duty, they are just what I truly believe in my heart. When I was a homicide detective, I smoked several packs of cigarettes every day, went to bars afterward to calm down. I don’t do any of that anymore. I have a whole different outlook now. I have more awareness. We all evolve.”

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