Proposal Could Resolve Key Death Penalty Issue

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Some clarity could be coming to a much-debated issue in the state of Florida.

Lawmakers are inching toward getting Florida’s death penalty back on the books after a series of court rulings left the state without a way to condemn to death defendants convicted of capital crimes.

House Judiciary Chairman Chris Sprowls on Tuesday filed a measure that would require unanimous jury recommendations for death sentences to be imposed, in response to a Florida Supreme Court ruling in October.

Lawmakers are attempting for the second time in a year to resolve infirmities in Florida’s capital sentencing laws.

Last January, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state’s death-penalty sentencing system as unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries. The ruling, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, effectively left the state without a death-penalty sentencing process.

Florida lawmakers hurriedly rewrote the statute last year, requiring jurors to unanimously find that at least one aggravating factor exists before a defendant can be eligible for a death sentence and requiring at least 10 jurors to recommend death for the sentence to be imposed.

The 10-2 recommendation was considered a compromise between House and Senate leaders. The Senate wanted unanimous jury recommendations, while the House backed a proposal pushed by prosecutors that would have required at least 9 jurors to recommend death.

At the time, Florida required simple majorities of juries to recommend death for the sentences to be imposed, making it one of only three states — along with Delaware and Alabama — that did not require unanimous jury recommendations. Delaware has since abolished the death penalty.

Defense attorneys repeatedly warned Florida lawmakers that the “evolving standards of decency” — a term of art used by the courts to analyze death penalty laws — increased the risk that anything other than unanimity would be doomed.

As they predicted, the Florida Supreme Court in October struck down part of the state’s new law, finding that it was unconstitutional because it did not require unanimous jury recommendations for death sentences.

Sprowls, a former prosecutor, said Tuesday his proposal (HB 527) is aimed at resolving the issue of unanimity.

“What we’ve done is take a minimalist approach that ensures the constitutionality of the death penalty in accordance with the opinion and most importantly it ensures that we have a working death penalty statute in the state,” Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said.

Sprowls’ bill mirrors a proposal filed by Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando. That bill (SB 280), filed nearly three weeks ago, has not yet been slated for a hearing.

Sen. Rob Bradley, who played a key role in passage of last year’s death-penalty bill and is also a former prosecutor, said he expects the Legislature to quickly approve a measure to restore the death penalty.

“The Senate supported unanimous verdicts in the last session, and we ultimately compromised on 10-2 with our friends in the House. It’s not a surprise that the Florida Supreme Court did what they did,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said. “It’s time to move forward in an expeditious manner to conform our death penalty statutory laws to the clear direction that has been offered by the Florida Supreme Court.”

The state and federal court rulings have resulted in a flood of litigation filed on behalf of some of the nearly 400 inmates on Death Row, as well as challenges to capital cases already underway.

“I expect that lawyers will continue to fight issues regarding the death penalty in Florida, but this legislation will knock out a significant portion of that litigation at the trial level in the future,” said Pete Mills, an assistant public defender in the 10th Judicial Circuit who also serves as chairman of the Florida Public Defenders Association Death Penalty Steering Committee. “Regarding unanimity, this goes a long way toward taking Florida out of its outlier status among the other states who continue to have a death penalty.”

Neither the House nor Senate measures address another issue raised by the Florida Supreme Court: whether juries must unanimously decide that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating circumstances in the defendant’s case.

Bradley did not say whether the Senate planned to include that component in its bill, but said he anticipates the proposal will “have some modifications” before it is finalized.

“We want to err on the side of caution because we want this to be the final statement on this matter. We don’t need to be revisiting this issue year after year,” he said.

The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.

(©2017 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.)

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