Legislation to require unanimous jury rulings for the death penalty advances in Florida Senate

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TALLAHASSEE – The state of Florida took another step towards the mainstream of American jurisprudence when a Senate committee on Feb. 15 approved a proposal that would require a unanimous verdict from a jury to sentence a prisoner to the death penalty.

The Senate Rules Committee approved Senate Bill 280 sponsored by Orlando Democrat Randolph Bracy that would replace the current state law that calls for at least 10 of the 12 jurors to recommend death, and make it unanimous for the death penalty to be imposed. That follows a similar measure passed by the House Judiciary Committee the day before.

The death penalty in Florida has effectively been suspended since January of 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court found the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries. It left it to the Florida Supreme Court to decide whether the ruling should apply retroactively.

The state has not executed an inmate since then.

The Legislature rewrote the death penalty law immediately after that ruling giving juries more power, declaring that at least 10 of the 12 jurors had to agree to recommend a death sentence. However, the Florida Supreme Court struck down that law last October, saying it was unconstitutional because it failed to require a unanimous vote by jurors before the death penalty could be imposed. The Court ruled that every penalty decision since 2002 was unconstitutional.

The bills being pushed in the Legislature this winter addresses the state Supreme Court’s ruling, and it appears likely that a remedy of requiring unanimous verdicts only in death penalty cases will soon get to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

Rex Dimmig, the Public Defender for the 10th Judicial Circuit of Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties, said the Legislature should have passed a bill last year requiring unanimity in death row cases.

Reacting to a comment from Hillsborough County based GOP Senator Tom Lee about the heavy work load that prosecutors will have to contend with after death row cases have been put on hold over the last year, Dimmig said that as of last month, there were 313 new death row cases in the state, and will probably be around 150 cases coming back for re-sentencing in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.

“The best estimate could cost all (state) agencies…in excess of $200 million to relitigate penalty cases in those cases,” Dimmig said, adding that the public defenders will be working with the appropriations committees in the Legislature to address those funding needs.

The bill does nothing else to the death penalty itself, which remains the law in Florida and 18 other states.

Herman Lindsey says it’s still a problem. Lindsey was exonerated by the Florida Supreme Court in 2009 after spending three years on death row for killing a woman during a Fort Lauderdale pawnshop robbery in 1994. He called the Bracy bill a “good move,” but added that all it ultimately does is end up “putting a bandage over a wound that needs stitches.”

Of the 31 states with the death penalty, Florida is one of only two states that does not require unanimous jury decisions for death to be imposed. The other is Alabama.

San Francisco native Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. He previously served five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. His piece appears courtesy of FloridaPolitics.com.

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