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Florida Death Penalty Law Update


On January 12, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death penalty sentencing scheme on the ground that it violated the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees an accused person the right to a trial by jury. Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, emphasizing that the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find the existence of each fact necessary to support the imposition of a death sentence.

Under Florida law, first degree murder is a capital felony for which the maximum penalty, based on a conviction alone, is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Under Apprendi v. New Jersey, a United States Supreme Court case, it was held that "any fact that exposes a defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury's guilty verdict is an element that must be submitted to a jury". See 530 U.S. 466, 494. Florida law, however, dictates that a person convicted of a capital felony may be punished by death where additional sentencing proceedings result in findings, by the court, that the convicted person be punished by death. This is where the issue arises: although Florida juries hear evidence regarding aggravating and mitigating circumstances during the penalty phase of the trial (which commences only where that same jury had found the defendant guilty of capital murder), and make a recommendation to the sentencing judge regarding whether a death sentence is appropriate, by majority vote, it is the judge that ultimately finds the facts necessary to sentence the person to death (or not). Most states that have the death penalty in place require a unanimous decision by the jury to impose a death sentence; Florida is one of three states that does not.

The state of Florida argued that because a jury must, necessarily, find the existence of aggravating factors in making a death recommendation, and that the judge must give "great weight" to that recommendation, its death penalty sentencing scheme is constitutional. In rejecting that argument, Justice Sotomayor's opinion referenced a number of Florida laws that are far from ambiguous: a person is not eligible for death in Florida until "findings, by the court, that such person be punished by death" are made, that the "trial court alone must determine that sufficient aggravating circumstances exist" and that "there are insufficient mitigating circumstances to outweigh the aggravating circumstances". The jury's role is advisory only. If the Sixth Amendment, and Supreme Court precedent, require a jury to make the factual findings necessary to support the imposition of a death sentence, and Florida law delegates that fact finding function to the court exclusively, then the scheme is unconstitutional. And that, in a nutshell, was the basis for the U.S. Supreme Court's January 12th ruling.

Needless to say, the ruling caused considerable uncertainty regarding its implications for the 389 Florida inmates on death row. Lawyers, judges, and legal experts wondered how the ruling would impact death penalty cases going forward, whether it would apply retroactively (requiring the Florida Supreme Court to commute all pending death sentences to life in prison), and how state law makers would come up with a workable solution.

Last Monday, Governor Rick Scott signed into law a major overall of Florida's death penalty sentencing provisions in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision on January 12th. Under the new law, the state must articulate, at the beginning of a murder trial where the death penalty is being sought, the reasons therefore. Jurors must decide, unanimously, if there is at least one reason (or aggravating circumstance) that justifies it. At the conclusion of the trial, a judge can reduce a jury's death recommendation to life in prison under certain circumstances, but cannot sentence a person to death without at least a 10-2 jury decision.

The new law does not address the 389 inmates sentenced under the old law. The Florida Supreme Court will ultimately determine the extent to which the U.S. Supreme Court ruling will affect them. There are sure to be more challenges ahead. I will keep you all updated as things continue to develop.