Senate panel OKs death penalty fix; requires unanimous juries
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee Monday passed a rewrite of Florida's death penalty sentencing law and rewrote history, too, in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the law and found that a jury, not a judge, must find each fact necessary to impose a death sentence.
The Senate bill goes beyond its House counterpart with a groundbreaking requirement that all 12 jurors in future cases must unanimously agree on the death penalty. Florida is one of three states in which a simple majority of seven jurors is sufficient to recommend a death sentence.
The bill (SPB 7068) has four elements that address the Supreme Court ruling in Hurst vs. Florida. Prosecutors must notify defendants within 45 days of an arraignment that they will seek the death penalty. Juries must unanimously agree on every aggravating factor to warrant a death sentence -- and if they don't, death can't be imposed. The jury recommendation of death must be unanimous; otherwise the sentence is life without parole. Judges will no longer be able to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence and impose a death sentence.
The bill is supported by public defenders who represent defendants and is opposed by state attorneys who prosecute cases. State attorneys strongly oppose a requirement for unanimous juries, and at their urging, the House bill currently requires no more than nine jurors to be in agreement.
If Florida requires all 12 jurors to agree on death, "You allow an individual juror to hijack the whole process," said State Attorney Brad King of Ocala. "In the sentencing part, there is no do-over."
The bill now goes to the full Senate. The Legislature must agree on a new sentencing law by the time the session ends on March 11 in order for executions to resume in Florida, where 389 inmates are on death row.
Senators heard support for unanimous jury recommendations from Juan Melendez, who spent nearly 18 years on Florida death row for a crime he did not commit and could have been executed, but he was exonerated. "You can never release an innocent man from the grave," Melendez told senators. "I see all of you going in the right direction."