Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s upcoming Statuary Hall placement tops a list a notable stories around Florida this week.
COMPILED FROM WIRE AND STAFF REPORTS
TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis formally asked Wednesday that the statue of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune replace the likeness of a Confederate general as a representative of Florida in the U.S. Capitol.
DeSantis sent a letter to the architect of the U.S. Capitol officially requesting that the Bethune statue be substituted for the one of General Edmund Kirby Smith in National Statuary Hall, a change Florida lawmakers approved last year.
In a press release issued Wednesday, the governor’s office noted his request was made on the 144th anniversary of Dr. Bethune’s birth.
“Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was an influential educator, leader and civil rights activist who became one of Florida’s and our nation’s most influential leaders,” DeSantis said in the release.
“Dr. McLeod Bethune’s statue will represent the best of who we are as Floridians to visitors from around the world in our nation’s capitol. Her legacy endures and will continue to inspire future generations.”
Dr. Bethune, who will become the first African American woman honored by a state in the national hall, founded what became Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and later worked as an advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt.
Each state is allowed to have two representatives in the national hall. Florida’s other representative is John Gorrie, widely considered the father of air conditioning.
Replacing Reb general
The Florida Legislature voted in 2016 to replace the Smith statue, in the midst of a nationwide backlash against Confederate symbols that followed the 2015 shooting deaths of nine African-American worshippers at a historic Black church in Charleston, S.C.
Smith was born in St. Augustine, but had few ties to Florida as an adult. As commander of Confederate forces west of the Mississippi, Smith was considered the last general with a major field force to surrender. He has represented Florida in the National Statuary Hall since 1922.
First choice of three
Despite agreeing to remove Smith, lawmakers were unable to come up with a replacement during the 2017 session.
A committee from the Great Floridians Program within the state Division of Historic Resources advanced Dr. Bethune’s name along with Everglades activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Publix grocery store founder George Washington Jenkins, Jr.
Democrats’ demands to replace Smith intensified after a White nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly. A plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee helped spur the Charlottesville rally in 2017.
A 9-foot marble statue of Bethune is already under construction in Italy, funded through donations to the Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation set up through the Daytona Beach Community Foundation, Inc. and the university that bears her name.
The new work is expected to arrive at the nation’s capital in 2020.
Drug deaths down
TALLAHASSEE – The number of drug-related deaths in Florida, including those caused by opioids, declined in the first six months of 2018, compared to the first half of 2017, according to an interim report released by the state Medical Examiners Commission.
There were 107,570 deaths in Florida during the first six months of 2018. Toxicology results determined that 5,922 cases involved drugs. The report contains the latest available data from the state and distinguishes between opioid-related deaths and opioid-caused deaths.
A drug is indicated as the cause of death “only when, after examining all (the) evidence, the autopsy, and toxicology results, the medical examiner determines the drug played a causal role in the death,” the report states. “Opioid-related death” means the drug was found in the decedent but is not considered the cause of the death.
Both opioid-related deaths and opioid-caused deaths are down, the report shows. However, there was a dramatic 64 percent increase in fatalities linked to fentanyl, and occurrences of fentanyl increased by 54 percent.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine. According to the medical examiners’ report, most of the fentanyl involved in the Florida deaths was illicitly produced.
Fentanyl caused 1,101 deaths in Florida during the first half of 2018 – more than any other drug – followed by cocaine, which caused 844 deaths, and benzodiazepines, which killed 559 people, according to the report.
Deputy arrested for planting drugs
CRAWFORDVILLE – A former Jackson County (Marianna, in the Panhandle area) deputy accused of planting drugs on motorists was arrested Wednesday after being charged with racketeering, official misconduct, fabricating evidence, possession of a controlled substance and false imprisonment.
Zachary Wester, 26, was arrested on the felony charges in following an investigation that began last August, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced Wednesday.
State investigators found that Wester “routinely pulled over citizens for alleged minor traffic infractions, planted drugs inside their vehicles and arrested them on fabricated drug charges,” according to a press release issued by FDLE.
Body camera off
Wester “circumvented” the Jackson County sheriff’s body camera policy “and tailored his recordings to conceal his activity,” the release stated. “There is no question that Wester’s crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail,” FDLE Pensacola Assistant Special Agent in Charge Chris Williams said in the release.
Wester, who also charged with misdemeanor perjury, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia, was fired last year. Prosecutors have dropped more than 100 cases that relied upon arrests and testimony by Wester, who spent two years working for the Jackson County law enforcement agency.
Jim Turner and Christine Sexton of the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.