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Florida Still Outlier as Death-Penalty Fix Falls Short of Requiring Unanimous Jury Verdicts

| February 19, 2016

florida death penalty

It’s coming back. (Ken Piorkowski)

The Florida House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a compromise measure designed to cure the state’s death-penalty sentencing system, struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last month as unconstitutional.

The Florida Senate is expected to sign off on the measure, which would require at least 10 jurors to recommend the death penalty for the sentence to be imposed and would empower juries to decide whether defendants should die or be imprisoned for life without the chance for parole.

The House and Senate had been split on whether jury recommendations for death sentences should be unanimous, an idea supported by the Senate while the House proposed 9-3 jury decisions. Under current law, simple majorities of juries have been able to recommend execution to judges, making Florida one of only three states — of nearly three dozen that have the death penalty — that do not require unanimous recommendations.

Senate leaders on Thursday confirmed that a deal had been worked out, virtually ensuring that the fix will be passed before the legislative session ends on March 11. Gov. Rick Scott has not said whether he would sign the measure, but he is expected to endorse it.

The Jan. 12 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, effectively put death sentences on hold in Florida until the Legislature addresses what the court decided was a constitutional infirmity in the state’s system of giving judges — and not juries — the power to impose death sentences. The process is an unconstitutional violation of defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, the court ruled.

The 8-1 decision dealt with the sentencing phase of death-penalty cases after defendants are found guilty and focused on what are known as “aggravating” circumstances that must be determined before defendants can be sentenced to death. A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, requires that determination of such aggravating circumstances be made by juries, not judges.

The plan approved by a 90-23 vote Thursday (HB 7101) would require jurors to unanimously find that at least one aggravating factor exists before a defendant can be eligible for a death sentence. The measure also includes a component of the Senate proposal that would require prosecutors to notify defendants if they intend to seek the death penalty.

The Supreme Court ruling did not address the issue of whether jurors should make unanimous recommendations to judges about imposing the death penalty, a process that happens after jurors determine whether aggravating factors exist. But the issue of requiring unanimous recommendations — or 10-2 or 9-3 recommendations — largely dominated debate on the legislation.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli praised the legislation, saying lawmakers have complied with the Supreme Court ruling.

“Changing the requirement for a jury’s sentencing verdict to be agreed upon by at least 10 of the 12 jurors has moved us to a position where we have gone beyond what was asked of us by the Supreme Court. These reforms will allow us to keep the death penalty in our toolbox to punish our most violent criminals,” Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said in a statement Thursday evening.

The Florida Supreme Court earlier this month indefinitely postponed the execution of Cary Michael Lambrix, scheduled to die last week, while the justices consider the impact of the Hurst decision on his and other Death Row inmates’ sentences.

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During debate on the bill Thursday, a number of Democrats objected to the death penalty in general, and some hammered on Florida’s status as the nation’s leader in Death Row inmates who were exonerated before being executed. Others pointed out inequities in the state system in which more blacks than whites are sentenced to death.

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, argued that the death penalty proposal was “cloaked in procedure but soaked in hateful policy.”

Rouson, a lawyer, said he had devoted years to learning about the death penalty.

“Always I have concluded the death penalty is wrong, because it lowers us all. It is a surrender to the worst that is in us. It uses a power, the official power, to kill by execution. That has never brought back a life, never inspired anything but hate. And it has killed many innocent people. All states should do as the bold few have done and officially outlaw this form of punishment,” he said.

The measure “does not fix problems with our criminal justice system,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat and a lawyer who has supported a unanimous jury requirement.

“It deals with the integrity and the reliability of our sentencing scheme,” Rodriguez said. “This bill does not do as much as I think we should, in an ideal world, but I know that this bill does more than we need to.”

State attorneys, who pushed the House plan, had objected to unanimous jury recommendations, saying the idea would allow a single juror to “hijack” the process.

But Rodriguez, who voted for the bill, said requiring unanimous recommendations would not necessarily mean that fewer defendants would be sentenced to death. Studies have shown that juries that voted 9-3 in favor of the death penalty reached the same decision when unanimous recommendations were required, Rodriguez said.

But Rep. Dennis Baxley, a former head of the state’s Christian Coalition, rejected such arguments.

“I don’t really care how they do it in the rest of the world. I don’t care about the academic argument. I don’t care about the statistics. I care about getting it right,” Baxley, R-Ocala, said.

As a funeral director, Baxley said he has “walked with” families whose loved ones have been murdered.

“At some point, we have to give them some measure of justice and say there’s a line where it is so heinous that the only answer is the ultimate cost of their life,” he said.

Baxley also objected to Democrats’ assertion that the state is “killing” inmates, saying that executions instead are “completing an obligation of government.”

Other supporters of the measure rattled off high-profile cases in which juries did not unanimously recommend the death penalty.

“We’ve heard a lot of talk about exonerations and innocent people. The jurisprudence system … is the best system we know,” said House Criminal Justice Chairman Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican who sponsored the bill.

Florida’s system includes an automatic appeal to the state Supreme Court when defendants are sentenced to death, Trujillo noted, saying the court’s scrutiny is far from a rubber stamp.

Trujillo highlighted a Florida Supreme Court decision Thursday ordering a new trial for Ana Maria Cardona, convicted of starving, beating and killer her toddler son, known as “Baby Lollipops” because of the design on a t-shirt he was wearing when the three-year-old’s body was discovered in 1990.

Calling Lazaro Figueroa’s death “one of the most heinous crimes” in Miami-Dade County history, Trujillo pointed out that Thursday’s ruling was the second time the high court overturned Cardona’s death sentence.

“In the interest of justice she is entitled to a new trial, regardless of who she is,” Trujillo said.

–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida

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