TALLAHASSEE — Legislation requiring a unanimous verdict from the jury to recommend the death penalty will head to the state Senate floor after passing a committee vote Monday.
The Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee passed its version of a bill (SB 7068) that would revise Florida’s sentencing process for the death penalty.
The Legislature is tasked with rewriting how to sentence someone to death after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the current method unconstitutional. In an 8-1 ruling last month in Hurst vs. Florida, the court said the Sixth Amendment was violated because state law allowed a judge to decide independently whether necessary aggravating circumstances exist.
The Senate and House bills are mostly similar except for one key matter: what it takes for the jury to agree to the death penalty. The Senate bill (SB 7068) requires a unanimous decision of all 12 jurors, but the House measure (PCB CRJS 16-07) requires only nine. Current Florida law requires a simple majority of seven.
“We’re going to move our bill forward, because we believe that is what the Supreme Court says and that we are not an outlier with the other states,” said Sen. Greg Evers, who is committee chairman.
According to data compiled by the Florida Supreme Court’s Clerk’s office, only 69 of 330 death penalty cases — 21 percent — in the past 15 years had unanimous jury verdicts. The Senate committee said in its analysis of the bill that a decline in death penalty sentences was likely, but the level is undetermined based on the data because only a simple majority was needed in previous cases.
Both chambers are similar on other key points, including notifying defendants in sufficient time that prosecutors will seek the death penalty at the arraignment (45 days for Senate, 30 days for House), a jury having to unanimously agree on all aggravating factors and a judge not being able to override the jury’s recommendation of life without parole by imposing the death penalty.
Florida was the only state remaining that called for a simple majority to find the presence of a sufficient number of aggravating factors. Now, if it isn’t unanimous, life without parole can be the only sentence.
Public defenders support the Senate version while state attorneys are opposed because of unanimity. The prosecutors do agree with the House version.
Mark Schlakman, the senior program director of Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, said he believes the Senate bill is stronger because it responds to the Hurst vs. Florida ruling in a stronger way.
“If the Legislature in an effort to reconcile goes on the lowest common denominator (9-3 or 10-2, like Alabama) that doesn’t insulate Florida from constitutional scrutiny,” he said.
Evers said there is the possibility of some negotiations with the House but he believes that the Senate’s bill has enough votes to pass.
Rep. Carlos Trujillo, who oversaw the House bill that passed committee last week, said the process is far from finished. The Legislature must agree by the end of session March 11. Florida has 389 inmates on death row, 157 of which have been there for more than 20 years. Florida is second to California in inmates sentenced to death.