Florida Politics

Unanimous jury standard for death penalty is now the law in Florida

The execution chamber at Florida State Prison in Starke.
The execution chamber at Florida State Prison in Starke. Florida Dept. of Corrections

It now takes a unanimous jury to sentence someone to death in the state of Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott on Monday night signed into law a new requirement that ups the jury standard for death penalty cases from 10-2. The legal change was made necessary by the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling in October that found the state’s sentencing laws unconstitutional.

The Legislature passed the new rules (SB 280) overwhelmingly last week. The death penalty fix is the first major law passed and signed in the 2017 session.

Florida joins most other states in requiring unanimous juries. Alabama still requires a 10-2 super-majority to sentence someone to death.

“Our goal was that the death penalty cases proceed in an orderly manner under a law that was constitutional,” said Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, last week.

Scott’s signature also allows prosecutors to move forward with cases where they plan on seeking the death penalty. Uncertainty around the court’s order in Hurst v. Florida put a pause on new death sentences.

In passing the death penalty fix, the Legislature opted not to address the hundreds of existing Death Row inmates whose cases were decided under sentencing laws thrown out by the courts.

Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former prosecutor and the House Judiciary chairman, said he wanted to deal with this issue and left it up to the courts to handle existing death cases decided by a non-unanimous jury. Some of those inmates have already been granted new sentencing hearings.

Just three lawmakers voted against the death penalty fix: Two House Democrats, Joseph Geller of Aventura and Robert Asencio of Miami, who oppose the death penalty on moral grounds, and Republican Rep. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill.

His was a protest vote, Ingoglia said.

“With a unanimous jury, you need all 12,” he said Friday. “You can have one activist and one vote and prevent the death penalty from kicking in.”

Michael Auslen can be reached at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen