State Supremes, Lawmakers Make Capital Sentencing Moves

Mar 10, 2017
Originally published on March 9, 2017 6:04 pm

The Florida Supreme Court is considering three capital cases after oral arguments in the past week.  Meanwhile the House and Senate are moving ahead with death penalty fixes.

It’s been fifteen months since Florida executed a prisoner, but the gears of the state’s capital sentencing system haven’t stopped turning.  Thursday the court ordered new hearings in two cases and upheld sentences in two others.  Over the course of multiple decisions last year the state supreme court demanded unanimous jury verdicts.  Thursday, the House and Senate took up measures to comply with those new requirements.

“This bill makes that one change to current law,” Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Ocoee) explained on the Senate floor.  “The bill requires that a unanimous jury, nothing less, must vote for a sentence of death in order for that sentence to be imposed.”

The measure passed unanimously, and Rep. Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) has set up a similar bill for a Friday vote in the House. 

But the court’s unanimity ruling, in a case known as Hurst, threw the fate of many on death row into doubt.  The justices made the decision to grant new hearings for men and women whose cases were finalized after 2002, and it’s now something of a central feature in oral arguments—defense attorneys in three recent cases went straight to Hurst claims before touching on other points.

In two of them, the jury’s recommendation was non-unanimous, which means the defendants are in line for new hearings.  The state argues the death sentences should stand—contending a reasonable jury would’ve reached a unanimous decision if that was required at the time.  But Valarie Linnen representing a man named Bessman Okafor pushes back.

“There was at least one juror that found the aggravation hadn’t been established beyond a reasonable doubt, that the aggravation didn’t outweigh the mitigation, mitigation was absent but the aggravators were insufficient, or there is the chance that this juror just decided that justice was best served with mercy,” she says.

The third case is a bit more complicated.  The defendant named Edward Covington waived his right to a jury.  But when he did so Florida still sentenced people to death with a simple majority, meaning from Covington’s perspective, six jurors would have to back a life sentence for him to avoid the death penalty.  Here’s his attorney Cynthia Dodge.

“If the statute were constitutional at the time of this jury waiver,” his attorney Cynthia Dodge says, “his calculation, his thought processes, would have been entirely different.”

“Because he’d be looking at this jury and saying do I have one vote?”

On behalf of the state, Suzanne Bechard argues Okafor shouldn’t be able to change his mind.

“A defendant can’t subvert his right to a jury finding by waiving and then coming back and saying no,” she argues.

This week’s opinion release also lifted the year-old stay of execution.  It was placed on Michael Lambrix’s death warrant last February.  That stay signaled a halt to executions in the Florida.  Its removal clears the way for them to begin again.

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