House Supports Unanimous Juries In Death Cases

Feb 22, 2017

Juries would have to unanimously decide that defendants should be condemned to death, under a fast-tracked proposal aimed at fixing the state's death-penalty sentencing system after a series of court rulings have put executions on hold in Florida for more than a year.

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved a measure (HB 527) that would replace a law requiring at least 10 of 12 jurors to recommend death with the requirement that juries be unanimous in calling for lethal injection to be imposed.

The Senate is also hurriedly moving forward with a similar measure, and leaders in both chambers said they want to get a bill to Gov. Rick Scott by the end of the first week of the legislative session, which begins March 7. Scott has indicated his support for the legislation.

Florida's death penalty has been in limbo since a January 2016 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida. That ruling struck down the state's death penalty sentencing process as unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.

The Legislature hurriedly passed a law to address the decision, but a series of rulings by the Florida Supreme Court last fall kept the death penalty suspended.

In a pair of October decisions, the state court ruled that the new law was unconstitutional because it only required 10 jurors to recommend death "as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, 12-member jury."

At the same time, a majority of the court determined that capital cases could not move forward until the Legislature fixed the law.

But on Monday, the court appeared to reverse itself on that position, deciding in a pair of consolidated cases that judges could move forward with capital cases — dozens of which are on hold, according to prosecutors — even before the statute is changed.

Legislative leaders said this week's seemingly contradictory court ruling will not slow down the progress of the death penalty measures.

The wave of death penalty-related rulings by the Florida court in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in January 2016 "created a great deal of paralysis" about capital cases, House Judiciary Chairman Chris Sprowls, a former prosecutor, told his panel before the 17-1 vote approving the measure.