A bill that would challenge existing Supreme Court precedent by allowing the death penalty for people who sexually batter young children moved through its first committee in the Florida Senate with a unanimous vote Monday.
The bill challenges a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Kennedy v. Louisiana, that determined the death penalty could not be applied for the rape of a child, saying it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Currently, the application of the death penalty for any case other than murder is unconstitutional. But the Florida bill, SB 1342, says that the 2008 case and a 1981 Florida Supreme Court case were “wrongly decided and an egregious infringement of the states’ power to punish the most heinous of crimes.”
The bill is a bipartisan effort. Republican Sen. Jonathan Martin of Fort Myers introduced the legislation with Democratic Senate leader Lauren Book of Plantation. Similar legislation, HB 1297, has been filed in the House.
Book has been outspoken about her own experience as a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and she runs a charity organization focused on childhood sex abuse prevention.
During the committee meeting, Book’s father, lobbyist Ron Book, made an emotional appeal to the committee members, saying sex crimes against children were “so heinous, so violent, so horrific.”
“On behalf of those who will never be able to say ‘thank you’ for this bill, this is the right thing to do,” Ron Book said.
Though the U.S. Supreme Court only explicitly ruled out the death penalty for all nonmurder cases in 2008, no one had been executed for any crime other than murder in the U.S. since 1964, according to a Senate staff analysis.
Many states had not sought the death penalty for individuals charged with crimes other than murder because of a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for the rape of an adult.
Florida has a law on the books that designates sexual battery of a child under 12 as a capital felony, but the statute has been effectively moot because of the court rulings.
Martin said he is pushing the challenge because he believes that the rape of a child is worse than some murder cases, and he hopes having the ability to apply the death penalty in those cases will be a deterrent.
“Ultimately, if you look at the court’s makeup from 2008, it has changed significantly,” Martin said. “I think the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court believes that states should have more of a say in decisions like criminal justice that were originally left to the states under the U.S. Constitution.”
The idea of expanding capital punishment has also been a push of Gov. Ron DeSantis. In January, DeSantis announced an idea to reduce the number of jurors required to implement the death penalty and a proposal to expand capital punishment to child sexual battery.
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The bill heard Monday would require eight or more jurors to vote in favor of the death penalty, instead of the current requirement for a unanimous jury. It would make Florida one of only two states with a nonunanimous jury requirement. Alabama currently has a 10-2 requirement. (Another bill, SB 450, moving through the Legislature also proposes to lower the jury threshold in capital cases to a minimum of eight jurors in favor.)
Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, said he thinks the legislation sets up an easy Supreme Court win for the governor ahead of the 2024 election, in which DeSantis is widely expected to run for president. But Pizzo said that shouldn’t be the focus of the discussion of the bill.
“You are a far more depraved individual, in my experience, to touch a kid than you are to shoot somebody,” Pizzo said.
Unlike Florida’s death penalty sentencing plan for murder cases, the proposed legislation would only allow capital punishment for child sexual battery if jurors unanimously find there are two aggravating factors to the crime, instead of only one. Aggravating factors include things like whether the perpetrator used a firearm, whether they were a felon on probation and whether the victim was especially vulnerable because of a disability.
“As we were talking to other senators, they wanted to make sure that this penalty was reserved for the worst of the worst,” Martin said.
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