The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s death penalty law, which does not require a unanimous agreement from jurors, is unconstitutional. What this means is that until state lawmakers can rewrite the sentencing procedure in Florida death penalty cases, there is no death penalty in Florida — at least for those awaiting trial.
Death penalty opponents applaud the decision, which comes not long after the law was recently-revamped. Previously, Florida did not require juries deciding on death penalty cases to reach a unanimous verdict as to the fate of the defendant. Only a majority was necessary to impose a death sentence. The law was rewritten to require a unanimous verdict. However, legislators decided to require, in a law passed earlier this year, that only 10 out of 12 jurors agree to impose death. That’s because the size of the jury in capital cases (as compared to other criminal matters) expands from 10 to 12.
However, the Florida Supreme Court in Perry v. Florida has now soundly rejected this arrangement. The U.S. Supreme Court had already determined back in January that judges in this state had far too much input in the decision of whether someone should be put to death. In fact, it should be the responsibility of the jury alone to make that call.
Previously, under an earlier version of the law, jurors were only responsible to make an advisory opinion to the judge with regard to the death penalty. The actual imposition of the sentence was left to a judge, and it had been this way since 1972. But this, the U.S. Supreme Court held, meant there was a disconnect between the jury’s responsibility to be fact-finders and identifiers of aggravating factors from the burden of considering the death penalty.
The recent 8-1 ruling means the future of hundreds of death penalty cases pending in Florida courts are now called into question. There are a total of 390 Florida prisoners currently on death row. Gov. Rick Scott has personally ordered the executions of 23 inmates on death row, the most of any governor since capital punishment since 1976.
One case in particular, that of death row inmate Timothy Hurst, the court issued a separate ruling that grants a new sentencing. His case was the one that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court’s review – and ultimate rejection of – the law. But whether there will be new sentencing procedures for the rest of the death row inmates remains unclear.
Since the state death penalty was enacted, judges have disregarded jurors’ recommendations on at least 300 occasions, choosing instead to either impose the harsher sentence of death or instead the less severe penalty of life in prison.
The ruling requiring unanimity brings Florida in line with the practice of most other courts in the country. It does not necessarily spell the permanent end of the death penalty, but it does leave nearly all involved – criminal defense lawyers, defendants, judges, prosecutors and families of victims – awaiting further guidance from the state high court and lawmakers before executions will resume (if they resume).
Attorney General Pam Bondi has issued a request for clarification from the state supreme court to determine whether the ruling applies retroactively. If so, we expect a sizable wave of appeals.
Contact the Miami criminal defense lawyers at Jacobs Keeley at (305) 358-7991 for a confidential consultation on your pending criminal matter.
Florida’s Supreme Court Declares State Death Penalty Law Unconstitutional, Oct. 14, 2016, By Bill Chappell, NPR
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