Fewer executions, death sentences in Florida stem from limbo of state law, study says

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

The lingering uncertainty over Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedures in the past year has made the state a microcosm of nationwide trends, according to a new report from a national nonprofit research organization focused on capital punishment.

The annual year-end assessment from the Death Penalty Information Center, released Wednesday, finds that death-penalty sentences, executions and public support for capital punishment all continued to decline nationwide in 2016.

Similar results were seen in Florida, where one public opinion poll earlier this year showed Floridians favoring life sentences over executions and where administration of the death penalty has been effectively on hold since January, when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Florida’s process for imposing death sentences.

“As a practical matter because of the unconstitutionality of the statute and the state Legislature’s failure to take appropriate precautions when it enacted a ‘fix’ in the statute, we ended up with the functional equivalent of no death penalty in Florida this year,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

MORE: Read the center’s annual report

Florida’s only execution in 2016 — that of Oscar Ray Bolin, Jr. on Jan. 7 — came just five days before the Supreme Court handed down its ruling.

Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedures had long been viewed as an “outlier” among states with the death penalty, and part of the trends of 2016, Dunham said, was the Supreme Court stepping in to minimize such outliers.

In the case known as Hurst v. Florida, justices determined one part of Florida’s process was unconstitutional. Justices ruled that a jury, not a judge, had to impose death sentences but they left open the controversial aspect of whether jury recommendations had to be unanimous in Florida, as they are required to be in almost every other state.

Lawmakers sought a solution in the 2016 session by amending state law to be in line with the Hurst decision and then also, as a compromise, requiring juries to recommend death sentences by at least a 10-2 vote.

But that law barely lasted six months. The Florida Supreme Court — acting on the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to address the Hurst decision — ruled in October that the new death penalty procedures approved by the Legislature were also unconstitutional.

Only three non-unanimous death verdicts were imposed in 2016 — two in Alabama, where they’re also allowed, and one in Florida.

Dunham said Hurst had “an immediate practical effect” because only three non-unanimous death verdicts were imposed in 2016, two in Alabama (where they’re also allowed) and one in Florida. Dunham predicts the Florida case will be reversed because it came between the federal and state decisions invalidating aspects of the sentencing procedures.

Florida had one other death sentence in 2016 imposed that was unanimous, the center’s report said.

Both the Florida Supreme Court and the Legislature have yet to address whether the Hurst decision should apply retroactively to those of the nearly 400 inmates on Death Row who were sentenced by non-unanimous jury recommendations.

“The court has to decide on retroactivity, but the Legislature could resolve the chaos if it chose to convert those sentences to life without parole,” Dunham said.

No bills have yet been filed to address the death penalty in the 2017 session. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told reporters Tuesday he supports requiring a unanimous jury verdict, as the Senate wanted in the spring, but he would not want the Hurst ruling to apply to past cases.

A unanimous verdict “strengthens the efficacy of a jury verdict on appeal,” Negron said, adding that “for me, it’s important that there’s an orderly system of justice in place.”

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark