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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 carlton@tampabay.com.

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