Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Selling Mickey

After this morning's haul of crime headlines, ranging from multiple murders to derelicts stealing used cooking oil from holding tanks outside our local restaurants, some observations on my new home:

Florida is many things to many people. For most folks, for well over a century, the Sunshine State has been just that—a state of sunshine year round; a place that is warm and inviting when the rest of the world is cold and menacing; a tropical paradise of orange groves, waving palms, white beaches, and blue water. More recently, when one thinks of the state they think of Mickey Mouse and Space Shuttles, of giant aquariums, Caribbean cruises and hit TV programs. Florida is also thought of as a state of eye-popping wealth. Driving down either coast, one is still stunned by the unbroken chain of high rise condos, the shiny gold Caddies and silver Beamers parked outside million-dollar mansions, the chic boutiques, the up-scale malls. That popular image of Florida is still relevant today. But there is another side of Florida; a dark, growing side visitors seldom see and seasonal residents choose to ignore.

Just back from the sun and sand, sometimes only a few blocks inland, another Florida begins, a Florida not seen on the postcards. There is no line separating the two Floridas from one another but the difference between them is as distinctive as night and day. In this other Florida, gone is the glitz and bling of the fancy seaside high-rises and the Magic Kingdom; now begins a monotonous run of squat single-story cinder block homes and dilapidated apartment units. These are the dwellings of the other Floridians. A chain-link fence, a barking dog, a clunker on blocks, litter on the lawn, a sad, untrimmed palm tree or two pretty much typifies the picture.

On any flaming hot day, one might catch a fleeting glimpse of the denizens in this other Florida. Sometimes shuffling in the shade of a strip mall, sometimes slowly riding a bike in the broiling sun with a plastic bag of something swinging from the handle bars, their movements always arrest attention. Thin as living sticks, their long hair always looks unwashed and greasy, their tattered cut-offs are worn and dirty, and the tattoos they sport on bare chests appear almost lost on hides as tanned as old billfold leather. At night these drug addicts and drunken dead-enders come out in droves, milling around bars or shooting up something near liquor stores, convenience stores and darkened alleys. Since the image of these other Floridians does not square well with the preconceived image of the state, the sight, by day or by night, is always startling. But the simple fact is, just as the “haves” migrated south for the weather, so too did the “have-nots.” Better to be poor and warm, so the reasoning runs, than poor and cold.

Despite the bursting of the Florida economic bubble in the early 2000’s, the flow south of these other Floridians continued. Of course, these new northern migrants didn’t read the black bordered Wall Street Journal headlines or hear Louis Rukeyser’s serious tones on PBS and thus they totally missed the boat when it was announced that the party in Florida was over; that the “Dream is dead,” as one business writer termed it. And so, for whatever reasons—unemployment, debt, drugs, marital mismatches, a criminal past—the poor still pour in.

Hopes. Dreams. “I’ll go to Florida and turn my life around.” Such is still the beacon, the star of hope, that keeps the will alive for many. Of those who make the move south, this vision becomes reality for only a steadfast few. For most, Florida is the end of the line; the dream is dashed; rock bottom is reached. For most, hope ends where the beach begins. With nowhere left to run, the past soon catches up to and overwhelms the present. The jobless remain jobless, the poor become poorer, the drug addict re-addicts, criminals return to what they do best.

Murderers, and murderers-in-waiting, also drift south. Over the past several decades, Florida has been the scene of some of the most spectacular murders in America with each crime seemingly more sensational than the last. Florida was the stage where prolific serial killers such as Ted Bundy, Eileen Wournos and the soft-spoken Danny Rolling acted out their bloody roles. It was the killing ground of Ottis Toole, the toothless wonder who murdered and decapitated the little son of “America’s Most Wanted” host, John Walsh. Florida was home to the daylight abduction, rape and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, relayed to the world in all its graphic horror by the video cameras outside a Sarasota car wash. Florida was also the haunt of crack head, John Couey, the drug addict drifter who raped and buried alive little Jessica Lundsford.

Although the random vacationer and seasonal resident—the “snow birds”--may see only palm trees and white sand, Floridians—those who live here year-round—read their newspapers and watch their TV’s. And these people are angry as hell.

With 139 units scattered over the state, Florida has the largest penal system in the United States. And it’s growing. Not counting local lockups, one hundred and sixty thousand individuals are currently imprisoned, on probation, or on parole from the Florida correctional system. The state has nearly four hundred murderers sitting on death row, as well. Only California, with double Florida’s population, has more. Compared to that of most states, Florida has an “active” execution program, killing convicted killers to the tune of several a year. Though too many and too fast for a handful of anti-death penalty activists, for a majority of Floridians the numbers are far too few and the pace far too slow. As the horrific headlines accumulate, the fury among Floridians to dispatch murderers as quickly as they are caught grows.

“Florida should seize the opportunity to change the way the state is headed,” argued one irate citizen. “They should start a competition with Texas to see who can execute them the fastest.”

While many, like the above writer, admire the factory-like efficiency of Texas, a state which puts its murderers to death at a clip of two per month, for others even that pace seems far too slow. Because of the sloth-like appeals process, the average life expectancy of a convicted murderer on Florida’s death row is thirteen years. Many prisoners die of natural causes during this lengthy appeals phase. Death penalty? To most Floridians, any system which metes out to convicted killers what amounts to a “life” sentence and not the quick death demanded seems hopelessly broken. Left to themselves, a majority of Floridians, tired of the gruesome headlines, would vote for prompt execution days, not decades, after the verdict.

“They need to take them in and put them right in front of the courthouse and put a noose around their necks and it’ll stop some of this stuff,” argued one angry Floridian.

“We don’t want the electric chair,” another man added. “We want electric bleachers.”

And for a considerable percentage of the furious, frustrated population, even a quick death on the courthouse lawn or “electric bleachers” would not be enough. Since a lengthy stay on death row seems absolutely no deterrent at all to cold-blooded murder in the state, some—as a sampling of “letters to the editor” below reveals—advocate punishments to fit the crime for the more sadistic killers.

I hope he is raped and beaten everyday that he sits waiting for death. Before the state kills him he should go through the same thing he put his victim through! May he rot in hell! ---–Jessica

I won't give him a death penalty!!! I will use my pairing knives and slice him thin like turkey meat. ----John

It’s a good thing I’m not a cop because I think I’d cut off any man’s balls who raped a woman and killed her like she was nothing in this world.

It is now time to put him to death. If I could be responsible for this action, he would be buried alive. When he passed out, I would revive him, then put him to death. ----Kathy

In a Southern State only recently wrenched from the wilderness, relatively speaking, a strong streak of vigilantism still survives in Florida. It takes no crystal ball or tea leaves to view a future in which if the state does not keep pace with the murder rate and dispatch its killers quickly, the people will.


Scary Clown of the Day