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Florida Senate approves requirement for unanimous jury in death penalty cases

TALLAHASSEE — Eager to let prosecutors pursue the death penalty again, the Florida Senate acted quickly Thursday to pass a court-mandated fix to Florida's sentencing laws.

The measure requires all 12 members of a jury to approve a death sentence. If just one juror dissents, convicted murderers are sentenced to life in prison.

Last October, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the state's death sentencing law, which required the jury to vote 10-2 in favor of capital punishment. In doing so, the justices forced the Legislature's hand, requiring them to fix state law if they wanted to allow prosecutions to move forward in death cases.

Republican leaders made the new law a priority.

"It was important to me that in the very first week of session we address this issue so we have a constitutional statute as juries are being selected and as families of victims are in court in very stressful circumstances," said Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. "We want a law that is orderly and constitutional."

The Senate voted unanimously for the fix (SB 280). The House lined up a version of the same legislation for a likely Friday vote. Sponsored by Palm Harbor Republican Rep. Chris Sprowls, HB 527 is expected to gain wide support in that chamber as well.

Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, said the Legislature should have enacted the new standard last year, instead of the 10-2 requirement they put into place.

"I strongly believe if we're going to give someone the ultimate penalty . . . we need to require a unanimous jury," Bracy said. "I just believe that it speaks to who we are as Floridians that if we're going to send someone to death that they should have a fair trial, and I believe unanimity speaks to that."

Gov. Rick Scott will review the legislation, a spokeswoman said. Scott has been an avid supporter of the death penalty, overseeing more executions than any previous governor since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. If he signs it, the bill would become law automatically.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, warned lawmakers they may soon have to address other criticisms of the death penalty. He singled out a standard set by the Florida Supreme Court that will give some inmates, who were sentenced under now-unconstitutional laws, a new hearing and a chance to get off of death row.

Negron said he does not agree that the state needs to address other death penalty issues.

This marks the second consecutive year that court rulings have forced the Florida Legislature to rewrite its death penalty laws.

On the first day of the 2016 session, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling in Hurst vs. Florida that ruled the state's sentencing scheme unconstitutional because it gave judges discretion to order the death penalty, not juries. Lawmakers changed the law last year and upped the jury standard from a simple majority to a 10-2 vote.

Earlier Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of an inmate whose execution was put on hold by the Hurst decision.

Michael Lambrix, 57, a high school dropout from Plant City, was convicted of killing Aleisha Bryant and Clarence Moore at his trailer in Glades County in 1983. This month marks his 33rd year on death row.

"We conclude that Lambrix is not entitled to a new penalty phase based on Hurst vs. Florida," justices wrote, calling Lambrix's various claims "devoid of merit."

The court lifted Lambrix's stay of execution, clearing the way for Scott to issue a new death warrant. Scott issued Lambrix's most recent death warrant on Nov. 30, 2015, but the state Supreme Court postponed it indefinitely after the Hurst decision.

In a Times/Herald interview from death row last year, Lambrix said a court reprieve was "my last hope."

"You're mentally prepared," Lambrix told the Times/Herald in 2016. "But confronting your own mortality is always difficult."

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

Florida Senate approves requirement for unanimous jury in death penalty cases 03/09/17 [Last modified: Thursday, March 9, 2017 9:37pm]
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