Florida Legislature To Tackle Death Penalty Sentencing Issue

Oct 19, 2016

For the second consecutive year, Florida lawmakers will attempt to fix the state's death-penalty sentencing scheme in response to court rulings finding that the process is unconstitutional.

Incoming Senate President Joe Negron, who will take over as head of the Senate after the November elections, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday that lawmakers will have to redress the issue of jury unanimity, at the heart of rulings Friday by the Florida Supreme Court, when they reconvene next year.

"It's going to be a unanimous verdict requirement going forward," Negron, R-Stuart, says.

The court on Friday ruled that a statute, passed in March by lawmakers in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, was unconstitutional "because it requires that only 10 jurors recommend death as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, twelve-member jury."

Last week's rulings left unanswered questions about the impact of the court decisions on Florida's 400 Death Row inmates. The state Supreme Court is expected to address the issue of retroactivity in other cases.

But Friday's decisions in two seminal cases — the Hurst case, which had bounced back to the Florida court, and another involving convicted murderer Larry Darnell Perry — made clear that the Florida justices believe a unanimous recommendation is required for the death penalty to be imposed.

Of 31 states that have the death penalty, Florida until Friday was one of just three — along with Alabama and Delaware — that did not require unanimous jury recommendations for sentences of death. Delaware's high court has put that state's death penalty on hold following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in January in the Hurst case.

There was "no ambiguity" in the Florida Supreme Court's ruling regarding the jury recommendation, says Negron, who is a lawyer.

Florida's death penalty has essentially been on hold since January's 8-1 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which found that the state's system was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. That decision said Florida's system gave too much power to judges, instead of juries, in sentencing people to death.

The rulings Friday by the Florida Supreme Court dealt with an issue that the U.S. Supreme Court did not directly address — the issue of jury unanimity in sentencing recommendations.

Negron says lawmakers do not need to rush to deal with the matter during a special session but could resolve it during the 2017 regular legislative session that begins in March.