Florida Death Penalty Laws in Disarray

The United States has had a long and conflicting history with the death penalty. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty nationwide, ruling that under laws that existed at the time, the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment which violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Four years later, the high court revived the death penalty. Since then, there have been 93 executions in Florida.

Of the 32 states that permit the death penalty, Florida is an outlier in many ways. It is just one of three states that allow jurors to issue the ultimate sentence without a unanimous vote. It is also one of three states in which a judge can override the jury’s recommendation, meaning if a jury issues a life sentence, the judge can move ahead with the death penalty. The United States Supreme Court and the state’s own high court have found Florida’s death penalty unconstitutional twice in 2016.

Stark Flaws Plague Florida’s Death Penalty System

According to the Sixth Amendment, to impose the death sentence requires a jury to find each fact necessary, not a lone judge. Additionally, the Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury, meaning that the recommendation for death must be unanimous. In Florida’s flawed system, juries rarely come to the unanimous conclusion when weighing the death penalty, and judges are free to override whatever decision they reach.

In January 2016, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the 8-1 ruling for Hurst v. Floridathat dismantled a portion of the state’s death penalty legislation. She concluded that the current system assigns juries an “advisory role” by asking them to make a sentence recommendation while the judge issues the final verdict. The Supreme Court found the judge’s ability to contradict the jury’s recommendation unconstitutional.

The Florida Supreme Court reconsidered Hurst v. Florida in October 2016. They tossed the death penalty because jurors had not unanimously recommended it. The jury voted 7-to-5 for the death penalty before the judge moved ahead with the death sentence. Florida’s high court also struck down the Florida legislature’s rewrite of the death penalty statute, which required 10 of 12 jurors to agree on a death sentence because it still permitted a non-unanimous vote to issue a death sentence.

Historic Ruling

As of March 2017, it takes a unanimous jury to sentence someone to death in Florida. Governor Rick Scott signed into law the requirement that increases the jury standard for death penalty cases from ten to twelve in response to the higher court’s ruling that found the state’s sentencing laws unconstitutional. Florida now joins 29 other states in requiring a unanimous decision for the death penalty. The policy is retroactive to 2002, meaning that dozens of inmates who have been on death row since after 2002 are eligible to have their sentences revisited and possibly reduced to life.

Implications of New Death Penalty Statute

Overall support for the death penalty is dwindling. In the 32 states where the death penalty stands, twelve have not executed a person in nearly a decade. Florida was one of just six states to execute a person in 2015. Due to the complicated nature of the appeals process, death row inmates cost the state $51 million more than if they were to serve life in prison.

Death row inmates can sit for decades awaiting their execution, often dying of natural causes before the date arrives. In the time they wait, they may have the chance to be exonerated. Since 1973, 27 people on death row were freed upon the release of new DNA evidence, the discovery of overzealous prosecutors and misinformed juries, findings that prosecutors based the entire case on circumstantial evidence, and other factors that have proved people innocent after they were sentenced to death. For all the effort that goes into upholding a death sentence, very few inmates are actually executed.

With the new standards, Florida inches closer to civilization. It is much harder to sentence a person to death when all twelve jurors must firmly agree to the penalty. All it takes is for one juror to argue against the penalty to spare a defendant from capital punishment. Finally, requiring a unanimous decision reduces the risk of sentencing an innocent person to death.

At The Umansky Law Firm, we believe everyone deserves a strong legal defense. If you have recently been arrested for a capital offense, do not hesitate to secure the representation of a determined Orlando criminal defense lawyer with a strong reputation. William Umansky and his team of lawyers provide aggressive representation.They have defended thousands of clients throughout a 25-year career with many favorable results. While we can’t guarantee victory, (no one can), we can guarantee that we are here to fight for you and be by your side. Contact us at 407-225-3838 for a free legal consultation or reach out to us online.

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