The process of sentencing criminals to die in Florida just received another level of difficulty. And that’s as it should be.
On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state’s revised death-penalty law is unconstitutional. It declared that when a jury recommends a sentence of death to a judge, jurors’ decision must be unanimous and a judge does not have the final say. Taking the life of a felon is the ultimate penalty meted out by the state. It’s a decision that should not be made by a jury that is in disagreement.
Justices also struck down a newly enacted law that allowed a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 of 12 jurors recommended it. That one was the result of the Legislature’s attempt to mollify the U.S. Supreme Court, which earlier this year struck down the state’s law that let a judge overrule a non-unanimous jury recommendation and impose a death sentence. When lawmakers convened to address it, they tacked on the 10-of-12 provision.
The latest ruling basically said, Nope, not good enough, and now triggers the potential re-sentencing of hundreds of Florida inmates on Death Row.
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This heightened requirement is fair, especially in a state that has seen the most exonerations of the wrongly convicted. But prosecutors opposed the unanimous-jury decision, saying that not even serial killer Ted Bundy received a one. However, a jury’s job is figuring out the most just penalty, not making prosecutors’ jobs easier.
Justices set them straight: “We conclude that the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury mandates that under Florida’s capital sentencing scheme, the jury — not the judge — must be the finder of every fact, and thus every element, necessary for the imposition of the death penalty,’’ the court wrote in its 5-2 ruling.
Up to now, Florida was the only state among 31 remaining death-penalty states that allowed juries to render advisory verdicts involving both the presence and sufficiency of aggravating circumstances and also recommendations of death by a simple majority vote.
Unfortunately, the latest ruling is a legal Pandora’s Box for the state. What happens now to the nearly 400 convicted killers on Death Row? Some say they now have the right to request a similar unanimity in their death sentencing.
That the courts had to step in highlights Florida’s legislative inaction. In 2013, the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors recommended that there be a comprehensive review of the state’s death-penalty process by all branches of government. Lawmakers fiddled, inmate advocates burned. Nothing was done, and the courts were brought into the picture.
The state Supreme Court’s ruling is the latest in a slow dismantling of the old way Florida has killed those who kill — from the lethal medical cocktail used to the basic guidelines followed. It began in January, when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the state’s death-penalty law that allowed a judge to overrule a jury verdict and impose a death sentence.
Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU in Miami, said the new procedures will reduce the number of death sentences.
But incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran told the Associated Press the ruling is the courts’ ongoing effort to “subvert the will of the people.”
We disagree. In death-penalty cases, the will of a unanimous jury is, indeed, the will of the people.