Senate begins rewrite of death penalty law after high court ruling
A Senate committee Wednesday will begin to explore how to change Florida's death penalty law, two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state's sentencing system as unconstitutional.
The five-member Senate Criminal Justice Committee scheduled a workshop to seek advice from prosecutors, public defenders, criminal defense lawyers, Attorney General Pam Bondi's office, the Florida Bar, and the state lawyers who represent death row inmates who appeal their sentences. The panel is chaired by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, and its other Republican members are Sen. Rob Bradley of Fleming Island, an ex-prosecutor, and Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg. The Democrats are Sens. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville.
State attorneys and public defenders, who have widely differing philosophies over the use of the death penalty, are likely to clash over possible solutions. Public defenders and other death penalty critics also want the Legislature to address an issue not addressed in the Hurst decision: that Florida is one of three states that does not require a unanimous jury recommendation to impose a death sentence.
Capital punishment in Florida, re-enacted in 1976, is in legal limbo following the Jan. 12 decision in Hurst v. Florida, in which the nation's highest court ruled that it is wrong that a judge, and not the jury, has the final say in sentencing a killer to death. Some legal experts have predicted a flood of new litigation by death row inmates seeking to have their sentences reviewed.
The Hurst decision is an outgrowth of a similar case in 2002, Ring v. Arizona, but Florida courts have consistently held that Ring did not apply to Florida and the state has continued to execute death row inmates. Florida has conducted 92 executions since the 1970s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Florida has 389 inmates on death row, but the pace of executions slowed considerably in 2015 because of the pending Hurst decision. Two inmates were executed last year, the fewest since 2011. The next execution is scheduled for Feb. 11 for Michael Ray Lambrix, who was convicted of two murders in Glades County more than three decades ago. The Florida Supreme Court has refused to block Lambrix's execution, based on a retroactive application of the Hurst decision.