TALLAHASSEE — With Florida’s death penalty law in limbo due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Emilee Cope on Wednesday described in chilling detail how her father, Keith, was hog-tied and left for dead back in 2009 when she was a teenager.
Cope recalled how her father suffered a stroke while he was left bound with rope and duct tape for days and then later died. She pleaded with state legislators to reject a proposal to require that juries unanimously recommend the death penalty because her own father’s killer did not receive a unanimous recommendation. The role of juries in death cases has become the central focus of lawmakers scrambling to pass a bill that could help the state resume executions.
But while legislators are hearing from the families of murder victims Gov. Rick Scott has remained mum.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled nearly a month ago Scott has not made any recommendations and on Wednesday the governor said that he won’t weigh in until state legislators send him a bill.
“The Legislature has not gotten me a bill yet,” said Scott, who has conducted the most executions under a single governor since the death penalty was reinstated in Florida in 1979. “When the Legislature gets me a bill I’ll be glad to review it.”
Scott’s decision to let legislators work out the details contrasts sharply with former Gov. Jeb Bush. After botched executions threatened Florida’s death penalty, Bush called a special session in early 2000. The governor recommended changes that included the state’s switch to lethal injection from the electric chair.
The Legislature is tasked with rewriting how to sentence someone to death after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 12 that the current method is unconstitutional. The high court in an 8-1 ruling found that the state’s sentencing procedure is flawed because it allows judges to reach a different decision than juries. Juries play only an advisory role in recommending death in Florida.
The Florida Supreme Court last week delayed the pending execution of inmate Michael Lambrix after his attorneys argued that the ruling should apply to all 389 people on Florida’s death row. Other judges across the state have also said they lack the authority to impose the death penalty in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Legislators have responded by quickly writing up a bill to overhaul the death penalty, but the House and Senate remain divided on what it takes for a jury to agree to the death penalty. The Senate bill requires a unanimous decision of all 12 jurors, but the House measure requires only nine. Current Florida law requires a simple majority of seven. Senators say they are pushing for the change to avoid future legal scrutiny of the state’s death penalty.
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 recommendations. Florida’s prosecutors remain solidly opposed to requiring juries to reach a unanimous decision which is why Scott’s position on the issue could wind up being crucial.
“I think particularly given the veto pen it would be important for the governor to weigh in,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who tried unsuccessfully to change the House proposal to mirror the Senate one.
Before the vote Cope told legislators that her father’s killer – Joseph Jordan – was sentenced to death in 2013 after a 10-2 jury recommendation. Jordan is currently imprisoned at Florida State Prison in north Florida.
“The death penalty to me is equivalent to euthanizing an animal,” Cope said. “They’re given peace and they don’t have to suffer anymore meanwhile my father suffered horribly and I wish he could have traded places with his defendant.”