Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida’s death penalty chaos was no surprise

Florida’s criminal justice system has fallen into a mess of our own making.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision last week finding serious flaws in Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedures. Suddenly, there’s considerable uncertainty about the sentences imposed on the 389 condemned prisoners on Death Row. Except for the absolute certainty that their lawyers are about to flood Florida courts with petitions demanding reconsideration of their cases. And that even more time and money and paper and patience will be devoured by Florida’s death penalty process.

All of which was utterly predictable. Utterly avoidable.

State legislators were warned by the Florida Supreme Court back in 2005 that the state’s singular sentencing scheme needed fixing: “We ask the Legislature to revisit it to decide whether it wants Florida to remain the outlier state.”

Then-Gov. Jeb Bush urged the Legislature to heed the court and revisit the death penalty statute.

Legislators ignored the state Supreme Court and ignored Bush.

A year later, an American Bar Association panel of experts released a Florida Death Penalty Assessment raising similar concerns about the sentencing procedure and “Florida’s failure to require jury unanimity when recommending a death sentence, in addition to the state’s practice of allowing judges to override jury sentencing recommendations.”

Again, there was no legislative response.

But lawmakers could hardly ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision handed down on the very opening day of the 2016 legislative session. “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the prevailing opinion. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”

Of the 33 states with the death penalty, Florida had been one of only three that allow a judge to override a jury recommendation. But here’s the confounding thing behind the tough-on-crime Legislature’s obdurate refusal to fix the problem. A change would have had no practical effect.

A Florida judge hasn’t overridden a jury recommendation for life imprisonment and imposed the death penalty since 1999. A Broward jury had voted 8-4 in favor of a life sentence for Jeffrey Weaver, who had been convicted in the 1996 murder of Fort Lauderdale Police Officer Bryant Peney. But Circuit Judge Mark Speiser, perhaps responding to public outrage around the case, imposed the death penalty. That was the last time a Florida judge ignored a jury recommendation for life. In 2004, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Speiser had erred. Weaver was re-sentenced to life without possibility of parole.

But who knows how the courts will deal with the 384 men and five women in Florida who were sentenced to die under a statute found constitutionally wanting? Florida judges must now wrestle with questions of whether last week’s Supreme Court ruling applies retroactively. Not to mention the logistics associated with hauling dangerous convicts around the state to re-sentencing hearings.

All of which could have been avoided if Florida’s legislative leadership, terrified of looking soft on crime, had not been so pigheaded.

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