Miami Judge Says Florida's New Death Penalty Guidelines Are Unlawful

May 10, 2016
Originally published on June 3, 2016 10:17 am

A Miami-Dade circuit judge has declared Florida's new death penalty law unconstitutional.

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The ruling comes just days after Governor Rick Scott signed off on new sentencing guidelines regarding capital punishment.

Under the new law, a jury verdict does not have to be unanimous when it comes to a recommendation of death.  A 10-2 vote would be sufficient.

On Monday, Judge Milton Hirsch rejected Florida's recently enacted "super majority" system in the first-degree murder case of Karon Gaiter.

The decision applies to just this defendant but Susan Rozelle, who teaches criminal law at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, expects Florida courtrooms could see similar rulings.

"The trial judge’s opinion will have persuasive authority,” she said. “Other trial judges who are facing the very same question from defendants in their courtrooms can look to this judge’s decision and be persuaded."

Miami-Dade prosecutors immediately vowed to appeal.

Florida had to revise its death penalty law after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges.

Last week, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was sentenced to death for the 1998 killing of a fast-food worker in Pensacola.

That case led to an overhaul of the state's death-penalty sentencing system and could have sweeping implications for the nearly 400 inmates awaiting execution in Florida.

"The Gaiter case is very clearly a reaction to Florida's new sentencing system which is itself a reaction to the U.S Supreme Court's decision in Hurst,” said Rozelle.

Florida Governor Rick Scott signed the new death penalty law into effect March 7.

"The judge gives the example of a discarding a refrigerator," said Rozelle of the opinion.

"It's a second degree misdemeanor punishable by less than 60 days in the county jail. It does seem odd that we would require unanimity to convict a defendant of every crime there is and not in this task that we ask of jurors."