Florida Politics

Florida Legislature will tackle death penalty after U.S. Supreme Court ruling

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

Lawmakers are prioritizing a fix to Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedures after the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declared them unconstitutional.

“Either that or we abolish the death penalty,” said House Criminal Justice chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. “Those are our two options.”

The court’s 8-1 opinion in Hurst v Florida states that a jury must impose a death sentence. Under current law, judges make that decision based on the jury’s recommendation, a procedure unique to Florida.

A look at top priorities for the 2016 Florida legislative session.

The justices handed down their ruling just as the House and Senate were convening for the 2016 legislative session.

“First and foremost, the Supreme Court has impeccable timing,” Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island said. “Secondly, obviously I’m not aware of everything that was put out in the ruling, but we will certainly have our judiciary team look at it.”

Lawmakers found out that their state no longer had a constitutional way to sentence convicted murderers to death around 10:15 a.m. in text messages and conversations with their staff.

“I don’t know whether it’s fortuitous or divine intervention that the court ruled today,” said Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, “but we’re thrilled.”

The court’s ruling forces an issue that wasn’t gaining much headway as lawmakers begin their 60-day session.

“The timing is right for us to make that necessary adjustment and modernize our death penalty system so we can continue to have capital punishment in the state of Florida,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, a strong supporter of the death penalty who has pushed to shorten the time between sentencing and execution on the nation’s second-largest death row.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said Florida should halt executions for the time being.

“It’s definitely something we need to look at,” he said. “I would think, with the status of the law now, there won’t be any executions until it’s fully vetted through and addressed, one way or the other.”

Hours after the court’s ruling, Gov. Rick Scott said, “I haven’t had a chance to review it.”

Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose office handles death penalty appeals, released a statement later Tuesday saying “the state will need to make changes to its death-sentencing statutes.”

“I will work with state lawmakers this legislative session to ensure that those changes comply with the Court’s latest decision,” she said. “The impact of the Court’s ruling on existing death sentences will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

Scott’s office would not comment on whether it intends to halt the February and March executions of Michael Ray Lambrix and Mark James Asay, killers sentenced to death under the now-unconstitutional sentencing rules system.

As death penalty reform becomes likely, so do the odds of more sweeping proposals already suggested by some lawmakers. Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, and Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, are the sponsors of legislation that would require jurors to unanimously agree on the aggravating circumstances and the sentence in a death penalty case.

Under current Florida law, it takes only a simple majority — 7 of 12 jurors — to sentence someone to death, fewer than any other state.

The Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t address that. Nevertheless, Altman is confident lawmakers will act on the changes demanded by the court to the jury’s role in capital punishment, as well as the issue of how many jurors must agree to issue a death sentence.

“I think at the minimum, we’ll go to a super-majority,” Altman said. “We’ll possibly get the unanimity we hope, but I believe the days of just a simple majority to put a person to death are gone.”

Not everyone in the Legislature is on board.

“I felt that Florida’s death penalty was very constitutional because it was a just reward for a crime that was committed that caused the death of someone else,” said Senate Criminal Justice chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker. “Do I support Sen. Altman’s idea? Yes, I support his idea, but it’s not a major priority of mine, because that’s the penalty that those folks received for causing the death of someone else.”

Top legislative leaders did not say how they plan to act, but Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, both plan to look closely at the issue.

Trujillo said he intends to put forward a bill in his Criminal Justice Subcommittee. And Evers said senators will discuss it in the next meeting of his Criminal Justice Committee.

Times/Herald staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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