Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a major overhaul of Florida’s death penalty on Monday in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring the previous system unconstitutional.
The new law requires at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend execution for it to be carried out. Florida previously required that a majority of jurors recommend the death sentence. The law was found unconstitutional in January because jurors served an advisory role while judges had the final say in death penalty cases.
“It is my solemn duty to uphold the laws of Florida and my foremost concern is always for the victims and their loved ones. I hope this legislation will allow families of these horrific crimes to get the closure they deserve,” Scott said in a statement released by his office.
The law took effect as soon as Scott signed the bill. While judges can lower a death sentence recommendation to life in some circumstances, they will not be able to impose a death penalty without at least a 10-2 jury decision.
Death penalty opponents said the law is an improvement, but doesn’t completely fix the state’s death penalty. Florida is one of only three states that don’t require a unanimous jury decision in favor of execution.
“We’re glad that after years of work, the unreliable and unacceptable system by which a person could be sentenced to death when five out of twelve jurors disagreed is coming to an end,” Baylor Johnson, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, remarked in an email. “But make no mistake: the legislature still hasn’t solved the problem of Florida’s broken death penalty system. Hopefully it won’t take the next inevitable court ruling for them to finish that work.”
Even Republican Sen. Greg Evers, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and who worked with House counterparts to get the legislation passed, said the new law would have been better if it required a unanimous jury decision before a prisoner could be condemned. He expects the law will be challenged.
“I would have felt more comfortable had it been unanimous,” Evers said. “I feel like we’ve got a good death penalty bill. I feel like it will hold up in court until some judge, somewhere, decides not.”
The legislation doesn’t address the 389 death row inmates who were sentenced under the old law. The state Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether the U.S. Supreme Court ruling should apply to those prisoners.
The new law also requires prosecutors to spell out, before a murder trial begins, the reasons why a death sentence should be imposed, and requires the jury to decide unanimously if there is at least one reason, or aggravating factor, that justifies it.
Mark Schlakman, the senior program director of Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, praised that aspect of the law, though he also questioned whether the lack of a unanimous jury decision on the actual sentence would ultimately doom the law.
“The Legislature perpetuated Florida’s outlier status as one of only three states among 32 remaining death penalty states in the U.S. that currently requires less than unanimity for such purposes, which leaves the door open for related challenges moving forward,” he said.