Xavier Cortada, “Proffitt v. Florida,” acrylic on canvas, 48″ x 36″, 2004

Chapter 7

Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976)

Artist's Statement

Francis Bacon painted an image of a pope gripping the arms of his chair. I don’t really recall when I first saw this beautiful piece, but I found it disturbing. Perhaps it’s because the sitting pontiff looked as if he was being electrocuted. Except I wondered, who, if anyone, really belongs in an electric chair? Who should receive the ultimate punishment? Who should decide, and what should the circumstances be?

It is a controversial issue that our Country and our courts have struggled with for years, at one point barring all executions as cruel and unusual. Then, in 1972, the US Supreme Court took up five cases to change its mind. One of those Death Penalty cases was “Proffitt v. Florida.” The court provided relief to states like Florida who wanted to allow judges to make the determination. With a formula that addressed mitigating and aggravating factors judges could calculate whether they would be sentencing someone to death. I envision the Capital Punishment formula as an algebraic expression that would read something like:

7M + 8A= 0 (CU)

M = mitigating
A = aggravating
CU = cruel and unusual

Although the idea was to put some objectivity into the decision making, at some point it’s almost absurd to think that we can objectify a decision that is so laden with emotion. In my opinion, adding the formula de-emotionalizes the death penalty so that it can be carried out.

Bacon’s painting was in the back of my mind as I painted this piece. In it, I portray a Death Row inmate whose time is up. He sits in a vacuum, waiting for one of us to pull the switch. It’s harder to do that when you see the individual face to face, regardless of the formulas. Naturally, it is a fantastic painting, it is loud and brash. But then again, there is nothing more fantastic than the death penalty, whether by lethal injections or some other process. I created this painting to make us all more aware about capital punishment, because in the end, it’s all of us who have a firm grip on to that switch.

– Xavier Cortada