State Politics

Gov. Rick Scott signs new Florida death penalty law as legal challenges mount

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

Gov. Rick Scott signed Florida’s new death sentencing law Monday on the eve of a legal effort by several Death Row inmates to stay alive because they were sentenced under a system declared unconstitutional.

Those inmates want the Florida Supreme Court this week to reduce their death sentences to life imprisonment without parole. They include Florida’s youngest Death Row inmate, the killer of a sheriff’s deputy and a man who raped and murdered a suburban Tampa mother of three while she was jogging.

Justices will consider the first appeals of several Death Row inmates who are arguing that their sentences are no longer valid because the law that was in effect when they were sentenced has been declared unconstitutional. They include:

▪  Terrance Phillips, sentenced to die for the shooting deaths of two people in Jacksonville on Christmas Eve 2009 when he was 18 years old. At 24, Phillips is the youngest of 389 inmates on Death Row in Florida.

▪  Paul Johnson, 66, of Eagle Lake, who has been under three death sentences for the 1981 killings of a Polk County sheriff’s deputy, a Winter Haven taxi driver and a Lakeland man who offered him a ride.

▪  Kenneth Jackson, 33, who abducted, raped and murdered a suburban Tampa mother of three while she jogged near her home in 2007, then placed her body in a stolen van and set it on fire.

Attorneys for all three condemned inmates say that their sentences must be reduced to life without parole.

“Florida’s death penalty statutes are facially unconstitutional,” Jackson’s attorney argued in written pleadings. “[Jackson] must be resentenced to life imprisonment.”

Phillips’ attorney, Martin McClain of Fort Lauderdale, made similar arguments to the court.

“Mr. Phillips’ jury did not return a unanimous verdict finding the statutorily defined facts,” McClain wrote to the court. “Instead, the jury returned a mere recommendation for the imposition of a death sentence by a vote of 8-4.”

Capital punishment in Florida has been on hold since Jan. 12 when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the state’s sentencing system as a violation of a defendant’s right to a jury trial.

In that case, known as Hurst v. Florida, convicted murderer Timothy Lee Hurst of Pensacola successfully challenged the constitutionality of the old law.

Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office has said that as many as 43 Death Row inmates could get life sentences without parole or new sentencing hearings as a result of the Hurst decision. Those 43 inmates are those who are entitled to automatic post-Hurst reviews of their cases under the state Constitution.

Of those cases currently before the court, Bondi’s office argues, death sentences should be carried out.

Bondi called Johnson’s legal arguments “misplaced,” saying his attorneys cited a provision in law that refers to the death penalty itself being struck down as unconstitutional, which the U.S. Supreme Court did not do.

“Life sentences would be imposed if the death penalty itself has been ruled unconstitutional,” Bondi’s office wrote. “A plain reading of the statute does not support Johnson’s strained interpretation for this case. The United States Supreme Court has not held that death as a penalty violates the Eighth Amendment, but has only stricken Florida’s current statutory procedures for implementation.”

Seeking to resume executions in Florida as soon as possible, the Legislature passed HB 7101. Scott signed it into law Monday, and it takes effect immediately.

The new law requires that juries in future capital cases must agree unanimously and in writing on the aggravating factors before imposing a death sentence.

The law also requires at least 10 of 12 jurors to agree on a recommendation of death. That’s the same sentencing system used in one other state, Alabama.

Florida’s old law allowed a jury to recommend death by a simple majority vote, and every other state with the death penalty except for Delaware requires juries to be unanimous in recommending a sentence of death.

Amid the uncertainty over the death penalty in Florida, the state’s highest court indefinitely delayed executions of inmates Michael Lambrix and Mark Asay.

Scott had issued death warrants for both men. He said Monday that he hopes that executions could soon resume in Florida.

“My foremost concern is always for the victims and their loved ones,” Scott’s statement said. “I hope this legislation will allow families of these horrific crimes to get the closure they deserve.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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