Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Carlton: Getting death sentences right in Florida

So the U.S. Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional our state's way of sentencing killers to die — a method that gives judges, and not juries, the final say.

The news, reverberating to Tallahassee and beyond, made me think of one case where this might have actually worked.

Except it didn't.

Humberto Delgado, once a police officer himself, had a history of delusions and psychotic behavior and had at some point believed police were out to kill him. Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts could not have known this on the night in 2009 when he stopped Delgado, who was homeless and pushing a shopping cart on his way to a veterans hospital. The officer could not have known about the four guns in Delgado's shopping cart.

Death penalty cases are always terrible, and that courtroom filled with sorrow for the senseless loss of a father, husband and cop. Death, a jury of ordinary citizens recommended by an 8-4 vote.

It should also be noted that this was no bank robber who murdered a cop to get away or a serial killer who had lain in wait. Doctors testified that Delgado was paranoid and bipolar with degrees of psychosis, that he was mentally ill.

So here is the unusual way we get to a death sentence in Florida: A jury hears evidence and recommends death or life in prison, knowing the judge will have final say. The judge, who is supposed to give the jury's recommendation great weight, decides whether sufficient specific aggravating circumstances exist to justify death. Some examples: The murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel; it was cold, calculated and premeditated; the defendant killed for monetary gain; the victim was a police officer.

I always assumed Florida adopted this method so dispassionate, level-headed judges were the final gatekeepers in cases that are tragic and emotional. You would hate to believe anyone decided we should do it this way so jurors would find it easier to say death knowing it was a mere recommendation. Or that anyone was thinking elected judges might be loath to appear soft on murder.

Some legal experts thought Delgado could rate a judicial override for a life sentence, something that has been sparingly applied in Florida. The judge said death. Last year, the Florida Supreme Court overturned his death sentence in favor of a life in prison — not surprising, given evidence of extreme mental illness. I guess you could argue the system worked, though a state-ordered execution is a scary thing with which to gamble.

This week's U.S. Supreme Court decision took specific issue with Florida's senten­cing "scheme" — an interesting word choice — that gives judges final say. State officials are now grappling with fixing this. Smart people who deal in death cases say some remedies are obvious: Juries should be required to name aggravating factors that led to their decision. Juries, not judges, should make the call.

It's too bad the opinion did not address another critical aspect: whether a jury's decision for death should be unanimous. We are the only state in which it takes just a simple majority — seven of 12 jurors. Many are on Florida's death row on a split vote. Lawmakers would be wise to address that now, too.

As this week's decision made clear, if we are going to sentence people to die for their crimes, that ultimate penalty is far too important not to get the rules right.

Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]

Carlton: Getting death sentences right in Florida 01/14/16 [Last modified: Thursday, January 14, 2016 8:17pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Motorcycle passenger critically injured in crash on USF campus

    Accidents

    TAMPA — A crash that occurred Thursday night on the University of South Florida Tampa campus sent a motorcycle passenger to the hospital in critical condition.

  2. Forecast: Warm, humid weekend ahead of big cool-down for Tampa Bay

    Weather

    The weekend kicks off warm and dry on Friday across Tampa Bay with mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the upper 80s.

    Tampa Bay's 7 day forecast. [WTSP]
  3. U.S.-backed Syrian force declares victory over Islamic State in Raqqa

    World

    BEIRUT — A U.S.-backed Syrian force declared victory over the Islamic State group in its former "capital" of Raqqa on Friday, declaring the northern Syrian city free of any extremist presence.

    This Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017 frame grab made from drone video shows damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria two days after Syrian Democratic Forces said that military operations to oust the Islamic State group have ended and that their fighters have taken full control of the city. [Associated Press]
  4. Florida education news: Lawsuits, lawyers, school board pay and more

    Blogs

    IN COURT: A former Hillsborough County school district top administrator sues the School Board and its chief of staff, alleging board member corruption and …

    Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes is the subject of several allegations in a former employee's scathing lawsuit.
  5. Clearwater eyes hiring new downtown director within two months

    CLEARWATER — Now that the city director tasked with revitalizing downtown has resigned after his arrest on a battery charge during Oktoberfest, City Manager Bill Horne said the goal is to not leave the position vacant long.

    Clearwater Assistant City Manager  Micah Maxwell will oversee downtown until the city hires a replacement for Seth Taylor.