It has been 20 months since a death row inmate has been executed in Florida and the state's Catholic bishops are pleading with Gov. Rick Scott to halt Thursday's scheduled execution of Mark James Asay.
In a letter delivered to Scott Monday, Michael Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote: "Indeed, Mr. Asay's violent acts call out for justice and should be condemned. However, life without parole is an alternative and severe sentence. We hold that if non-lethal means are available to keep society safe from an aggressor, then authority must limit itself to such means."
After a lengthy suspension of Florida's death penalty due to prolonged legal battles and actions by the Legislature, Asay, 53, is scheduled to die at 6 p.m. Thursday at Florida State Prison in Starke for the murders of two men in Jacksonville in 1987. One victim, Robert Booker, who was African-American, was shot in the abdomen after he and Asay had a racially-charged confrontation outside a bar according to a summary of the case by the state Supreme Court, which quoted Asay as having used the "N"-word three times.
Asay has been on death row since 1988, and his lawyers have repeatedly tried without success to prevent his execution. The lawyers unsuccessfully petitioned the Florida Supreme Court for access to the bullets that killed Asay's two victims, and they sought a rehearing based on the court's acknowledgement that it incorrectly identified McDowell as black, when he was white or Hispanic.
Asay will be the first white inmate to be executed for the killing of an African-American in Florida history. His sister, Gloria Dean, tells a Jacksonville TV station that her brother joined a white supremacist prison gang in Texas for his own protection, but that he is not a racist and that the killings were not racially motivated.
For decades, Catholic bishops in Florida have consistently opposed the death penalty, without success. Prior to Asay's execution, the bishops said, prayer vigils will be held at locations around the state, including Miami, Miami Shores, Pompano Beach, Inverness and on Tampa radio station WBVM 90.5.
Asay is one of 362 inmates on death row in Florida.