Editorial: Fix capital punishment flaw

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera
Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera
Published March 15, 2013

Florida's capital punishment system has a flaw that leads jurors to deliberate less thoroughly than in other states when deciding whether to recommend the death penalty. Florida and Alabama are the only two of 32 death penalty states not to require a unanimous jury vote as part of the sentencing process. Today a vote is expected in the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee on a bill sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman, a Melbourne Republican, to require juror unanimity for execution recommendations and bring Florida into line with other states. Despite the death penalty's cost and potential for innocent people being executed, the Florida Legislature isn't likely to abolish it — unlike Maryland lawmakers, who moved to do so last week. But a bill that pushes jurors to do their job more carefully and thoughtfully would make the system less error-prone and should be universally supported.

Altman is right to say a unanimous jury recommendation "will enable us to have a more effective and accurate system." Florida ranks first in the nation in the number of inmates who have had death sentences reversed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Experts who have seen the way Florida's capital punishment system operates, including former Florida Supreme Court Justices Raoul Cantero and Harry Lee Anstead, think juror unanimity is needed. Anstead testified before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Altman's bill, saying it would ensure that the death penalty is reserved for "the worst of the worst" and help immunize death sentences from appeals and constitutional challenges.

Florida requires a unanimous jury for a conviction. During the sentencing phase of a death penalty case, jurors can recommend death by as little as a 7-5 vote. Judges have the final say, but experience shows they only overrule jury recommendations two or three times per year, as Tampa Bay Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas noted in an article Sunday.

The key problem with majority voting is that it leads to shallow deliberations, which can lead to errors. Research cited by the American Bar Association in 2006 showed that Florida juries come to a decision on death faster than any of the 13 states examined. Florida juries had the highest percentage of recommendations in less than an hour and the lowest percentage of deliberations where jurors sought to review trial materials. A majority of the jurors Zayas interviewed said a unanimous requirement would have led to a longer discussion.

Altman's bill changes current law by requiring jury unanimity in death sentence recommendations and in determining the aggravating factors that support it. Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, has the companion bill in the House, HB 961.

Opponents of unanimous juries say it will sharply reduce death sentences and would have let serial killers like Ted Bundy and Aileen Wuornos escape execution. That's unlikely. When jurors know unanimity is required, the dynamics of a jury room change. Texas, a state that requires unanimity, put more prisoners to death last year than any other in the country. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe contends the change wouldn't result in a dramatic decrease in death sentences because prosecutors would vigilantly keep jurors off panels if they are ambivalent about the death penalty. But prosecutors already evaluate jurors on this basis.

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This year's bipartisan effort would fix a serious flaw in the capital punishment system. Until Florida takes a comprehensive look at whether it should exist at all, making improvements in its fairness is the best approach.