Far fewer Florida killers are sentenced to die after courts require unanimous juries

Adam Matos killed four peopl but one juror held out for life in prison instead of the death penalty.  CHRIS URSO  |  Times
Adam Matos killed four peopl but one juror held out for life in prison instead of the death penalty. CHRIS URSO | Times
Published April 12, 2018

On Aug. 28, 2014, Adam Matos walked into a house in Hudson and slaughtered an entire family.

He shot Megan Brown, the mother of his 4-year-old son. He shot her father and attacked her boyfriend and mother with a hammer, bludgeoning them to death.

Pasco Sheriff's deputies found the four bodies stacked on a nearby hill.

On trial for the murders last year, prosecutors sought the death penalty.

"If there was a death case, this was the one," said Bruce Bartlett, Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney.

But some in the 12-member jury disagreed. Ten voted to execute Matos in three of the murders. In the slaying of Brown's mother, 11 voted for death.

Matos' life was spared by a single juror. He was sentenced to life in prison.

"It's pretty compelling to wipe out a family like that," Bartlett said. "But somebody said no."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Faith leaders urge State Attorney Bernie McCabe to stop death sentences.

After the Florida Supreme Court ruled that juries in capital cases must be unanimous, death sentences have become few and far between.

In 2012, 22 people were sentenced to death, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. That number declined through the years, dropping to nine in 2015. It slumped even further to just three in 2016, the year a landmark court decision challenged the way Florida executed killers.

In 2017, three others were condemned to death row.

Florida had fewer new death sentences in the last two years combined than it had in any other single year since the death penalty was reinstated in the early 1970s, federal statistics show.

Across the country, as murder rates decrease and some states abolish the death penalty entirely, the number of death sentences has also fallen. In 1994, there were 310 nationwide.

Last year, it was 39.

• • •

The state's death penalty system came to a halt on Jan. 12, 2016.

In Hurst vs. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for juries to play only an advisory role in capital cases. At the time, juries could recommend a death sentence by a simple majority of 7-5. But it was ultimately up to a judge to decide the sentence.

The state Legislature revised the law. Under the new rules, at least 10 jurors needed to approve a death sentence.

Seven months later, that law became void when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that juries in capital cases must be unanimous. In March 2017, that became law.

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"We've been arguing for unanimity since I started, which was 1976," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "This gives the jury the power that we think the Founding Fathers wanted juries to have as opposed to the courts."

Through the years, the death penalty has been the subject of much debate in Florida, with opponents citing the high cost of appeals and the risks of executing an innocent person. With 27 exonerations, Florida leads the nation in the number of people freed from death row.

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Some high-ranking prosecutors have also expressed concerns.

During his 2016 campaign, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren told the Tampa Bay Times he believed juries should be unanimous. "It needs to be applied fairly and consistently and rarely," he said.

Last year, newly elected Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced she wouldn't seek the death penalty in her circuit. But when Gov. Rick Scott had her capital cases transferred to other state attorneys, she created a panel tasked with evaluating which murders should be treated as capital cases.

Capital punishment, prosecutors often say, should be reserved for the worst cases.

With unanimity, said R.J. Larizza, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, "that means the worst of the worst may have gone up a notch or two."

The three cases that resulted in death sentences last year included:

• A North Naples man who killed his wife and their five children by slitting their throats.

• A state prisoner serving time for armed robbery and aggravated battery who beat his cell mate to death.

• A St. Johns county man who shot, stabbed and beat his wife with a baseball bat.

There were no death penalty trials in Hillsborough County last year. The Pinellas-Pasco circuit had at least three trials that resulted in life sentences.

Death sentences are "going to diminish based on the new law," Larizza said. "I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I'm not saying it's a good thing. I'm just saying that's the reality of the Hurst decision."

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the Hurst decision, followed by the Florida Supreme Court's ruling, are the main reasons why the number of death sentences dropped in the last two years. Many judges refused to move forward with cases until the laws were fixed.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers were higher this year," Dunham said. "That would not reflect a resurgence of the death penalty. It would simply reflect that more of the cases that were stalled are in the pipeline this year."

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Still, he added, the numbers will likely not rise to the levels before Hurst. In 2016, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that two-thirds of the killers Florida has executed since 1995 died on the recommendation of fewer than 12 jurors.

• • •

Unanimous juries present challenges for prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Lawyers have to probe by asking potential jurors the same question in several ways: Are they capable of considering both sides of the case and putting their personal beliefs aside?

They also have to make sure jurors understand what "unanimous" means, Dillinger said.

"It's far more involved now than it used to be," he added.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Jury botches form, clerk mistakenly announces death sentence.

In the Matos case, Bartlett has a theory about the 11-1 vote.

"It just reinformed my position or theory that you get people on juries who say they will consider the death penalty that never, ever intended to do that," he said.

Take the capital case of Joel Cruz, a Largo man who beat a 2-year-old girl to death. In August, a Pinellas jury sentenced Cruz to life in prison after two jurors voted against death.

Hours after the verdict, one juror emailed the clerk's office and said two other jurors didn't believe in the death penalty.

"One stated she's been called every year and just wanted to serve no matter what," the message reads. "Is there something jurors can do to remove another juror when we find that they lied to get on the jury?"

Prosecutors requested a new penalty phase, but Pinellas Circuit judge Joseph Bulone denied their motion because "the state can cite no case law" that says they are entitled to a new trial.

Meanwhile, public support for the death penalty is decreasing.

A recent nationwide poll found that 55 percent of adults are in favor of capital punishment, the lowest it's been in 45 years.

In a Pinellas County poll funded by the nonprofit Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, 68 percent of those polled preferred life in prison.

"I think jurors are getting more and more weary of the death penalty and the potential for mistakes," Dillinger said. "Almost every day, there's some type of killing, and I think people are getting worn out about it."

• • •

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe is seeking the death penalty in at least 13 cases, including older ones that are back for resentencing after the Hurst ruling. Those defendants were sent to death row with a non-unanimous vote.

In Hillsborough, Warren has authorized seeking the death penalty in six cases. Among them is Howell Donaldson III, charged with fatally shooting four people over several weeks in Seminole Heights.

Experts believe the number of death sentences will continue to drop, in Florida and beyond.

"I don't think we can accurately predict the numbers, but it seems unquestionable that we're never going to return to the levels of the '80s and '90s," Dunham said.

In Lethal Rejection, a legal article published last month, two professors found the number of death sentences has dramatically fallen.

Among the reasons: lower murder rates and the repeal of the death penalty in cases where defendants are either juveniles or mentally ill. In total, the death penalty is outlawed in 19 states.

Of the 31 states where the death penalty exists, Alabama is the only state that requires a non-unanimous vote.

"The American death penalty seems like an ever-crankier version of the of the Cheshire Cat," the article reads, referring to Alice in Wonderland. "It is grudgingly disappearing, leaving behind only its frown."

Information from the Naples Daily News, the Pensacola News Journal, and The St. Augustine Record was used in this report. Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel.