TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Monday signed into law a measure designed to fix the state’s death-penalty sentencing process after it was found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the new law will almost certainly be challenged.
The Jan. 12 Supreme Court ruling — handed down on the opening day of the legislative session — found that Florida’s system of giving judges, and not juries, the power to impose death sentences was an unconstitutional violation of defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.
“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.
With the death penalty effectively on hold in Florida, lawmakers hurried to come up with a solution before the legislative session ends Friday. Scott signed the bill (HB 7101) into law just days after the Senate approved it.
While the new law establishes a revamped system for defendants charged with capital crimes who have not yet been sentenced, it is unlikely to have any impact on the cases of Florida’s 390 Death Row inmates. The Florida Supreme Court is sorting through some of the cases now, after lawyers for the inmates filed a flurry of appeals in the wake of the ruling.
The 8-1 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, dealt with the sentencing phase of death-penalty cases after defendants are found guilty, and it focused on what are known as aggravating circumstances that must be determined before defendants can be sentenced to death. A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, requires that determinations of such aggravating circumstances must be made by juries, not judges.
While the Supreme Court ruling focused on aggravating circumstances, nearly all of the legislative debate centered on whether Florida should require unanimous jury recommendations about whether defendants should be put to death.
The new law, which went into effect immediately, would require at least 10 jurors to recommend death for the penalty to be imposed — a compromise between the House and the Senate, which had originally favored unanimous jury recommendations. Prosecutors, including Attorney General Pam Bondi, pushed for the 10-2 recommendation, arguing that unanimity would allow a single juror to hijack the process.
Of the 31 states with the death penalty, Florida is one of only three that do not require unanimous jury recommendations for death to be imposed. The others — Alabama and Delaware — require at least 10 jurors to recommend death. Until Monday, Florida law had allowed majorities of juries to recommend death.
The Hurst ruling did not specifically address unanimous jury recommendations to judges, a process that happens after jurors determine whether sufficient aggravating factors exist. Death penalty experts advised lawmakers that failing to require unanimous jury recommendations could make the state’s death penalty law vulnerable to future court decisions.
Although both chambers overwhelmingly approved the measure, a key component is expected to prompt a legal challenge.
The new law would require juries to unanimously determine “the existence of at least one aggravating factor” before defendants could be eligible for death sentences. Florida law lists 16 aggravating circumstances — such as whether a crime was committed for pecuniary gain or if a victim was under 12 years of age — that juries could consider.
Defense lawyers argue that the list is so broad that virtually any murder could be considered a capital crime.
Allowing a single aggravating circumstance — even with a unanimous jury finding, as the proposed law would require — to determine whether a defendant is death-penalty eligible could run afoul of the Supreme Court’s consistent view that capital punishment should be reserved for a narrow class of offenders who commit the worst crimes, the lawyers contend.
Because of that, the proposed law could violate Eighth Amendment protections against cruel or unusual punishment, Rex Dimmig, public defender in the 10th Judicial Circuit, told The News Service of Florida last week.
But lawmakers remained confident that the law would pass muster.
“I would have felt more comfortable if it (jury recommendations) had been unanimous, but the way it is right now, I feel like we’ve got a good death penalty bill. I feel like it will hold up in court,” Senate Criminal Justice chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, said.