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Lawmakers Back Unanimous Juries In Death Cases

Hello World Media
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida juries would have to unanimously agree that defendants should be condemned to death for the sentence to be imposed, under a proposal given swift and overwhelming approval at its first Senate committee Monday.
But efforts to broaden the legislation to address other issues involved in a series of court rulings that prompted this year's measure appear, at least for now, to be doomed.

Proposals to require unanimous jury recommendations, backed by leaders in the House and Senate, come as Florida's death penalty has been on hold for more than a year as a result of a key U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, in January 2016.

The 8-1 decision, based in part on a 2002 ruling in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, struck down as unconstitutional Florida's death penalty sentencing system because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.

Florida lawmakers hurriedly rewrote the statute last year, requiring jurors to unanimously find that at least one aggravating factor exists before a defendant can be eligible for a death sentence and requiring at least 10 jurors to recommend death for the sentence to be imposed. The Supreme Court ruling and the subsequent legislation dealt with the sentencing phase of cases, after juries have unanimously found defendants guilty of crimes.

During debate on the sentencing issue last year, defense lawyers repeatedly warned that the 10-2 jury recommendation — pushed by prosecutors — kept the state's death penalty law at risk because it made Florida, one of only three states that then did not require unanimous recommendations, a national "outlier."

The Florida Supreme Court last fall struck down the new statute, finding that part of the new law was unconstitutional because it did not require unanimous recommendations for death sentences.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Monday unanimously approved a measure (SB 280), sponsored by committee Chairman Randolph Bracy, aimed at fixing the flaw in the statute by requiring unanimous jury recommendations.

Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, said he had spoken with people on both sides of the issue about what he acknowledged is a controversial topic.

But defense lawyers cautioned that, even while they support the unanimity requirement, the state law is still flawed without additional changes.

Florida law requires juries to make recommendations about death sentences after weighing aggravating factors, laid out in statute, and mitigating circumstances. But Florida law identifies at least 16 aggravating factors, including whether a defendant is a member of a gang, that make defendants eligible for the death penalty.