It will be easier for judges in Florida to impose the death penalty under a new ruling by the state’s Supreme Court.
Departing from a previous case, the court ruled Thursday that judges can impose the death penalty without a jury’s unanimous recommendation. This decision not only deviates from the court’s prior rulings but also from almost every other state’s laws.
Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said jury unanimity is extremely important, especially in capital cases. He said 90 percent of death row exonerations in Florida and Alabama, the only other state that doesn’t require unanimity, have been in cases that lack a unanimous jury. The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-partisan Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit that analyzes issues concerning capital punishment.
Dunham said Florida and Alabama sentence defendants to death at a much higher rate than the 27 other states that permit the death penalty. He said this decision unquestionably makes Florida an outlier.
“Placing disproportionate power on elected judges to make death penalty decisions at the extent of the views of the community and allowing partisan judicial decisions are hallmarks of an unfair process,” Dunham said.
Dunham said he believes this decision is a “partisan decision in a politicized court.”
He said Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has appointed “highly partisan” judges to the court to ensure more conservative decisions regardless of the consequences to the perceived legitimacy of the judicial system.
“It delegitimizes the decisions of the court and contributes to the kind of eroding confidence in capital punishment generally,” Dunham said.
Kylie Mason, the press secretary at the State Attorney General’s Office, said the office is currently reviewing the ruling. The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association could not be reached for comment as of Friday afternoon.
Prior to the December 2016 decision in Hurst v. State, Florida juries had to recommend the death penalty only by a simple majority for a judge to sentence a defendant to die. However, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that under the Sixth Amendment a unanimous jury must determine the defendant was eligible for the death penalty because of “aggravating circumstances.” These factors include previous felony convictions, crime’s severity, and victim’s vulnerability based on age and health.
The state court’s Hurst decision went a step farther than the federal ruling, requiring that the jury unanimously recommend the death penalty. In response to this decision, the state legislature changed its laws to require a unanimous jury.
Thursday’s decision in Poole v. State says that the majority “got it wrong” in Hurst and allows judges to impose the death penalty if a unanimous jury agrees that there were aggravating factors, paralleling the federal ruling.
The Poole majority said that the Hurst ruling misinterpreted the Supreme Court’s standard as to when the Constitution forbids imposing the death penalty. The justices said the Constitution requires only that the jury unanimously decide that aggravating factors exist, not—as was decided in Hurst—that the jury must unanimously agree that death is the proper penalty.
Dunham said this cases’ dissent accurately describes what the majority should have said. Justice Jorge Labarga, who was on the court at the time of Hurst, issued a forceful dissent.
Labarga said Florida holds the “shameful national title” of the state with the most death row exonerations, so it should maintain this unanimity safeguard to ensure the penalty is being “fairly administered.”
“The majority removes an important safeguard for ensuring that the death penalty is only applied to the most aggravated and least mitigated of murders,” Labarga wrote. “In the strongest possible terms, I dissent.”
Labarga also pointed out that the Florida legislature maintains laws requiring a unanimous jury in death penalty cases. He said the majority opinion does not require this law to be amended.
Florida House Speaker José Oliva said in a statement that the court decision does not change that the law currently requires a unanimous jury for a death sentence.
“This week’s court decision on the death penalty, while reversing a prior decision, does not impact the 2017 statute we passed that requires unanimity of the jury for a death sentence. That statute remains on the books because the law can require more than the Constitutional floor,” the statement said.
It is unclear as of now if the legislature plans to maintain the unanimity requirement. Senate President Bill Galvano could not be reached for comment as of Friday afternoon.