Florida Revamps Death Penalty, Making It Harder to Sentence Someone to Die
MIAMI — With Florida’s capital punishment system at a standstill, the state Senate passed a compromise bill on Thursday that would overhaul Florida’s death sentencing law, allowing the state to resume death penalty prosecutions by making it harder for juries to send someone to death row.
The legislation, which seeks to address the objections of the Supreme Court in its decision to strike down Florida’s capital punishment law, passed the Senate by a vote of 35 to 5. The measure will be sent to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it into law.
While the state Senate had sought a tougher, broader bill on death penalty sentencing, it agreed to a compromise with the more conservative Florida House. Florida has one of the more active death rows in the country, with 390 prisoners, and a brisk pace of executions. After the Supreme Court decision in January, two death row inmates were granted indefinite stays of execution pending, in part, a fix to Florida’s death penalty law. Death penalty prosecutions have mostly stalled in the courts.
The new legislation does not resolve the issue of when executions in the state would resume and which death row inmates, if any, would be resentenced to life in prison without parole under the expected new law. Those decisions will be left to the state courts.
The compromise bill would make it more difficult to hand down death sentences by requiring a jury vote of 10 to 2. Jurors currently can recommend a death sentence by a simple 7-to-5 majority vote. The change falls short of the unanimous verdict that death penalty critics in Florida sought for capital punishment cases. It continues to make Florida an outlier; only one other state, Alabama, allows a 10-to-2 death verdict as opposed to a unanimous decision in capital punishment cases.
Republican supporters of the bill said that if it became law, Florida’s death penalty system would be stronger and satisfy the Supreme Court. Democrats did not entirely disagree, but they expressed disappointment over the Legislature’s decision to dodge the chance to bring Florida in line with other states.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Senator Arthenia L. Joyner, the Democratic leader. “I would prefer a unanimous jury verdict, but you can’t always get what you want when you want it.”
The bill also addresses the Supreme Court’s chief grievance in its January ruling: that Florida law gave too much power to judges in death penalty sentences and not enough to juries. Under the bill, juries would have to decide unanimously on the aggravating factors that warrant a death sentence. Aggravating factors include circumstances that are especially brutal, for example, or a murder committed with premeditation. Under current law, some jurors could decide on one aggravating factor, others could decide on another, and some could choose no factors. No unanimity was required.
The legislation would require a jury to turn over its findings on aggravating factors to the presiding judge. The judge would then issue a sentence based on only those aggravating factors, although the bill gives the judge the power to override the jury and sentence someone to life in prison. Florida judges do not currently know which aggravating circumstances juries have selected, making them free to choose their own, essentially overriding the jury’s grounds for recommending death. The Supreme Court ruled this a violation of the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the rights of people accused of crimes.
Supporters of the compromise pointed out that the House and Senate bill went further than necessary by requiring a 10-to-2 jury verdict on the overall death sentence. This was not something the Supreme Court addressed directly.
But death penalty experts said it was only a matter of time before the issue of nonunanimous death penalty verdicts cropped up before the court. Karen M. Gottlieb, a director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University’s law school, said “many lawsuits” would be filed on that issue. Florida, Alabama and Delaware are the only states, out of the 31 with death penalty laws, that do not require a unanimous verdict. Delaware’s system, which requires a 7-to-5 jury majority, is under review and at a standstill.
Alabama faces problems now, too. On Thursday, a state court judge ruled that Alabama’s death penalty law was unconstitutional because its use of aggravating factors was so similar to Florida’s old system, among other things. The judge said Alabama’s law was even worse than Florida’s because it allowed judges to override a jury’s life sentence in favor of death, noting that judges did that all too often. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said that the judge’s decision applied only to four cases in the Birmingham area.
Death penalty opponents said defendants in Florida courts were found guilty or innocent for civil or criminal crimes by unanimous juries. Yet, they said, sentencing somebody to death does not require unanimity. Critics said that was one reason Florida has the highest number of exonerations, with 26.
“When the message to the jury is you don’t have to be unanimous, each juror doesn’t feel the same responsibility,” Ms. Gottlieb added.