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Florida Death Penalty Law Update: Pt. 2

Our March 2014 post presented an overview of the United States Supreme Court's January 12th ruling that struck down Florida's death sentence provisions as unconstitutional. The opinion was delivered by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who emphasized that the Sixth Amendment (which guarantees an accused person the right to a trial by jury) requires a jury, and not a judge, to find the existence of each fact necessary to support the imposition of a death sentence.

Prior to the January 12th ruling by the United States Supreme Court, Florida law dictated that the 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. As discussed in our previous post, that was where the issue arose: although Florida juries heard evidence regarding aggravating and mitigating circumstances during the penalty phase of the trial, and made a recommendation to the sentencing judge regarding whether a death sentence was appropriate, by majority vote, it was the presiding judge that ultimately found the facts necessary to sentence the convicted person to death (or not). As stated previously, most states that have the death penalty in place require a unanimous decision by the jury to impose a death sentence. Florida was one of but three states in the union that did not.

As a result of the ruling by the United States Supreme Court, Florida's death penalty sentencing provisions underwent a major overhaul. The new provisions, which were signed into law by Governor Rick Scott this past March, required the state to articulate, at the beginning of a murder trial, where the death penalty was being sought, the reasons therefore. In accordance with the new law, jurors must decide, unanimously, if there is at least one reason (or aggravating circumstance) that justified it. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge could reduce the jury's death recommendation to life in prison under certain circumstances, but could not sentence a person to death without at least a 10-2 jury decision (as opposed to at least 7 in favor of a death sentence, as it was previously).

Just seven months later, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the new overhaul as unconstitutional and for the same underlying reasons. Just yesterday, our state Supreme Court held that jury recommendations for the death penalty must be unanimous. Further, juries, and not judges, must find and unanimously agree on all components of the evidence relating to the death sentence. For this reason, the sentencing scheme enacted earlier this year cannot not be applied to pending murder cases where the death penalty might be sought.

For those currently on death row, the Florida Supreme Court is expected to decide whether the state must conduct new sentencing hearings, commute the sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole, or allow the condemned inmates to be sentenced to death, even though the sentence was imposed by a non-unanimous jury. Based on the ruling, however, it appears that Florida's 385 inmates who are currently on death row will have some meaningful opportunities to be spared the imposition of the ultimate penalty.

At this point, the legislature will have to make a second attempt at re-writing Florida's death penalty provisions in accordance with the rulings of both the United States Supreme Court and, as of yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court as well. Until that happens, Florida will join the ranks of those states that are without the death penalty. As always, I will keep you posted as this develops.

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