Judge in Florida v. Gaiter: Florida Death Penalty is Unconstitutional

Florida’s new death penalty law is unconstitutional, ruled a Miami-Dade judge recently, because jurors aren’t required to agree unanimously on the execution.prison1

The decision in Florida v. Gaiter is the just the latest in legal wrangling over the death penalty in Florida.

Death penalty cases have been on hold since January, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Hurst v. Florida. In that case, the court declared Florida’s death sentence system unconstitutional because it didn’t entrust jurors with enough power. For the last several decades, jurors have been responsible for issuing “majority recommendations” when it comes to the death penalty, while it is ultimately the judge who imposes the order of execution.

That forced Florida lawmakers to rewrite the law. Part of that rewrite included a provision stating at least 10 of 12 jurors had to agree before the death penalty could be imposed. It should be noted that Florida did not require a majority before the new law was written. The SCOTUS did hear arguments on the unanimity issue, but it did not issue a ruling on it – only the way the courts handed significant power in the decision over to the judge.

Aside from Florida, Delaware and Alabama, all other states in the U.S. have long required jurors to reach a unanimous decision with regard to the death penalty.

Now comes Judge Milton Hirsch’s opinion in the Gaiter case,which was focused on the state’s new “super majority” for death penalty decisions. Hirsch noted that in order to secure a conviction in any criminal case in Florida, there must be a unanimous verdict – not of some or of most jurors, but of each and every one. He pointed out that a person can’t be more or less dead. A woman can’t be more or less pregnant. And a jury can’t be more or less unanimous. 

He conceded that arithmetically, the difference between 10 and 12 may not seem substantial. However, he noted, the question at hand is not a matter of math. It is a matter of justice and of constitutional law.

If prosecutors appeal, as they have vowed, our Miami criminal defense lawyers know the matter would be weighed by Miami’s Third District Court of Appeals, from which it will almost certainly go on to the Florida Supreme Court, which has never ruled in one direction or the other with regard to juror unanimity in death penalty cases.

The Florida Supreme Court just recently heard oral arguments in Hurst, with the defendant in the case asking the court to commute his death penalty to a life sentence. In the balance hangs the fate of some 400 Florida Death Row inmates. The Florida Supreme Court was handed the case from the SCOTUS, with instructions to review the sentence of the 37-year-old defendant. The convicted killer is accused of murdering his former boss at a fast-food restaurant in Pensacola in 1998.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court did not strike down the death penalty itself, it did say the legal framework under which Hurst was sentenced was flawed. His defense lawyer is arguing that punishment can’t be separate from procedure, and the defendant’s sentence should be commuted.

Contact the Miami criminal defense lawyers at Jacobs Keeley at (305) 358-7991 for a free consultation on your pending criminal matter.

Additional Resources:

Judge says state death penalty law is unconstitutional, May 9, 2016, By David Ovalle, The Miami-Herald

More Blog Entries:

Hurst v. Florida – The Slow Death of the Death Penalty, Jan. 13, 2016, Miami Criminal Defense Attorney Blog