Death Penalty Inching Its Way Back Onto Florida's Books

Jan 27, 2017

New rules seek to put the death penalty back on the books in Florida.
Credit Florida Department of Corrections

Florida is one step closer to reinstating the death penalty.

After a year of turmoil for the state’s death penalty, one Florida legislator is trying to rein things in a bit. House Judiciary Chairman Chris Sprowls has proposed a bill that would bring the state’s death penalty in line with several state court and U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have thrown the sentence into limbo.

See WLRN's documentary about Florida's death penalty in limbo here.

The bill (HB 527) would require that a jury be unanimous in handing down a sentence of death.

Before last spring, only a simple majority—seven of 12 jurors—was required to recommend a sentence of death. But in March 2016, the state had to rewrite those rules in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision, which struck down the old rules  about who has the final say in making a sentencing decision, a judge or a jury.

A compromise was struck last summer between the state Senate, which wanted unanimous juries, and the House, which wanted a majority. The result was that 10 of the 12 jurors  were  required to agree to the sentence.

The Florida Supreme Court threw out those new rules in October, ruling that a jury must be unanimous in its decision. The state Supreme Court had raised its eyebrows at the practice of allowing non-unanimous juries at least a decade ago. Then-Justice Charley Wells had written an opinion urging the Legislature to bring the state in line with almost every other state in requiring unanimous juries.

The new bill simply strikes from the law each mention of “10 jurors” and replaces it with “unanimous jury.” Less than a unanimous decision would automatically lead to a sentence of life in prison.

Florida Sen. Randolph Bracy has introduced a nearly identical bill (SB 280) with slightly different phrasing.

While the state has had no constitutional law on the books, state prosecutors have been fighting to continue capital trials with a new understanding that all 12 jurors have to agree. For a few hours, there was some clarity on that issue, when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors would have to wait until the new rules become law. The same day, the court rescinded that opinion, saying it was issued prematurely.

Three people were sentenced to Death Row in 2016, the fewest since 1979 when the death penalty was reinstated nation-wide. Whether those sentences will hold up is very much in question.