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A Times Editorial

Jurors should be unanimous in recommending death sentence

Even the most ardent opponents of capital punishment were hard-pressed to feel much sympathy for Oba Chandler, one of Florida's most notorious murderers. On Tuesday, the state finally executed him, as a unanimous jury had recommended 17 years ago for his brutal 1989 killings of an Ohio woman and her two daughters. If Florida is going to continue to use the death penalty despite its cost and potential for killing people for crimes they did not commit, it should let no lesser standard apply. It's time for the state to join other death penalty states in requiring a unanimous recommendation from the jury before a death sentence.

Florida's hand is already being forced on the issue. In June, a federal district judge in Miami ruled that Florida's unique failure to require unanimous agreement by juries in recommending the death penalty is unconstitutional. The state has appealed.

But Florida lawmakers should have gotten the message long before this past summer that something was amiss. Florida has the dubious honor of leading the country in death row exonerations: 23 since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s. That raises the very real specter that Florida has executed individuals who were not guilty of capital crimes.

Such findings have prompted right-minded lawmakers to at least entertain the notion that the system could be improved. A trio of bills filed this year by Sens. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, and Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, and state Rep. John Patrick Julien, D-North Miami Beach, would each require a judge only impose a sentence of death after unanimous agreement by jurors. That would provide greater clarity and accountability to Florida's criminal justice system. The proposal would also reduce lengthy and costly appeals by inmates challenging their death sentences due to a less-than-unanimous jury recommendation.

Chandler was sentenced to death in 1994 by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer following a unanimous recommendation by the jury. His heinous murders of Joan Rogers and daughters Michelle and Christe still shock Tampa Bay. But Chandler notwithstanding, Florida needs to have a broader conversation on the overall efficacy of capital punishment. Until then, the Florida Legislature should embrace the notion of unanimous jury recommendation as a small but long-overdue step to provide a bit more fairness in administrating the ultimate sentence.

Jurors should be unanimous in recommending death sentence 11/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 6:54pm]
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