TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Moving closer to getting Florida’s death penalty back on track, the Florida Senate on Thursday approved a measure that would require unanimous jury recommendations for death sentences to be imposed.
Lawmakers are rushing to pass legislation to address a series of court rulings that have kept the death penalty — and executions — in limbo for more than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, struck down the state’s capital sentencing process as unconstitutional.
The Hurst decision, premised on a 2002 ruling in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, found that Florida’s system of allowing judges, instead of juries, to find the facts necessary to impose the death penalty was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.
The Legislature early last year passed a law to try to address the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
But in a pair of decisions in the fall, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the new law — which required at least 10 of 12 jurors to recommend death sentences — also was an unconstitutional violation of the right to a trial by jury because, unlike all other jury verdicts, it did not require a unanimous recommendation. The ruling dealt only with the sentencing phase of death-penalty cases, not the guilt phase, which already requires unanimous verdicts.
Thursday’s Senate vote — on the third day of the 2017 legislative session — would ostensibly fix the weaknesses identified by the majority of the Florida Supreme Court with the current law.
“I believe this is a great first step in getting this right,” Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat who sponsored the measure (SB 280), said before the 37-0 vote.
The Florida House is expected to pass the proposal as early as Friday. Gov. Rick Scott has indicated he will sign the measure.
“It was important to me that, in the very first week of session, that we address this issue so we have a constitutional statute — as juries are being selected and as families of victims are in court in very stressful circumstances and in very difficult circumstances, we want a law that is orderly and structured and constitutional,” Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said.
But the change to the statute won’t do anything to settle the fate of more than half of the nearly 400 inmates on Florida’s Death Row who are likely to be granted new sentencing hearings as a result of the previous court rulings.
Before the Senate vote on the death penalty measure, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday issued opinions in four capital cases, overturning death sentences in two cases and upholding the death penalty in two others.
In one of the cases, the court unanimously refused to grant a new sentencing hearing for convicted double-murderer Cary Michael Lambrix. Scott ordered last year that Lambrix be executed, but the death warrant was put on hold by the Florida Supreme Court shortly after the federal Hurst decision.
Lambrix was convicted of the 1983 murders of Aleisha Bryant and Clarence Moore in Glades County. According to court documents, Lambrix met the couple at a LaBelle bar and invited them to his mobile home for a spaghetti dinner.
Lambrix went outside with Bryant and Moore individually, then returned to finish the dinner with his girlfriend. Bryant’s and Moore’s bodies were found buried near Lambrix’s trailer.
Lambrix was originally scheduled to be executed in 1988, but the Florida Supreme Court issued a stay of that execution. A federal judge lifted the stay in 1992.
The Florida court on Thursday decided that Lambrix did not deserve a new sentencing hearing because his case was finalized before the 2002 ruling in Ring, even though non-unanimous juries recommended death on two occasions.
The court also refused to grant a new sentencing hearing to convicted murderer Dale Glenn Middleton, who already received a new hearing before the state court and who was sentenced to die in 2012 after a jury unanimously recommended death.
In contrast, the court vacated death sentences in the cases of two other Death Row inmates — Charles Anderson and Howard Ault — because of issues related to the Hurst decision.
Negron said Thursday afternoon that lawmakers are focused solely on making sure judges and prosecutors can move forward with death penalty cases, which have been essentially on hold for more than a year.
“Our goal was that death penalty cases proceed in an orderly manner, under a law that is constitutional. That was our focus,” Negron told reporters.
(The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.)