Florida Politics

Florida House approves plan to change death penalty sentencing

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

The Florida House on Thursday passed a bill intended to bring back the state’s death penalty, which has been on hold since last month.

Under a rewrite of state death-penalty laws, juries would sentence convicted killers to death, rather than recommending the sentence to a judge. That’s the policy that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to declare Florida’s sentencing rules unconstitutional last month.

As part of a deal struck with senators, a death sentence would also require a 10-2 jury vote and unanimous agreement that aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors to justify a death sentence.

The issue was forced to the top of lawmakers’ priorities Jan. 12, when the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Hurst v. Florida on the first day of the legislative session. Without rewriting the laws, death sentences cannot go forward in the state.

“There are some cases which in my opinion warrant the death penalty,” said Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, the former prosecutor who negotiated the details of the plan with the Senate. “This bill, which admittedly is a compromise, ensures that remedy can be used in the vary rare cases when it should be applied.”

Lawmakers voted 93-20 on the legislation (HB 7101). Many of those opponents voted against the fix because they viewed it as supporting the death penalty.

“This bill is cloaked in procedure but soaked in a hateful policy,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

For nearly two hours, lawmakers debated the issue, with many saying it was among the most difficult votes they will take as lawmakers.

Rep. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, said he struggled with how to vote because his sister was murdered when he was 26 years old. “For a long time, I wanted to kill that guy,” Lee said.

The man convicted of the murder ultimately died of a heart attack, but Lee said today, 40 years later, he still feels the pain of his family’s loss.

“But I also think on the other side, not just about me and my family’s suffering but about the family of those people who may have been put to death who are innocent,” he said.

But supporters of the measure, like Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said under changed death-penalty laws, there would be even greater safeguards in place to prevent innocent people from being executed.

Juries would still have to find a person guilty by a unanimous vote, and they would now have to agree unanimously to at least one aggravating factor.

Many supporters said that as difficult as it is to support executions, they see it as the Legislature’s responsibility to ensure the death penalty can continue in Florida.

“I don’t like having to decide to take someone’s life, but I think the government, the state, in the name of justice has to make that call,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.

The Senate still must vote on the legislation before it is sent to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature or veto. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who negotiated the agreement with McBurney said he anticipates the Senate will pass it.

Scott is a strong supporter of the death penalty and has authorized more executions than any governor since the death penalty came back into use in the 1970s.

“It’s clear that the judicial system is on hold until there is a death penalty bill passed,” Bradley said. “And so we owe it to the victims’ families and the victims to produce a death penalty statutory scheme so that those cases can move forward, and we’re going to do it.”

Herald/Times reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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