Governor quickly signs death penalty sentencing bill

TALLAHASSEE | In a second attempt to “fix” the death penalty in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law March 13 that would allow the state to once again start executing Death Row inmates and prosecute death penalty cases.

With legislators just returning to session, the signing of the law comes quickly. According to The News Service of Florida, Florida’s Supreme Court recently decided capital cases could proceed even in the absence of a statutory fix. But legislators nevertheless rushed to address the issue, making it the first bill passed by both chambers and sent to the governor by the end of the first week of the 2017 legislative session. The Florida Senate unanimously approved the bill titled “Sentencing in Capital Felonies” (SB 280) Thursday, and the House approved the measure (HB 527) by a 112-3 vote the following day.

Florida’s death penalty had been temporarily quashed because questions arose of its constitutionality for more than a year thanks to a series of court rulings, including the January 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Hurst v. Florida. The 8-1 opinion, premised on a 2002 ruling in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, found that Florida’s system of allowing judges, instead of juries, to find the facts necessary to impose the death penalty was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.

At the time, Florida required only a simple majority of jurors to recommend death. But the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst, which did not address the unanimity issue, forced Florida lawmakers to reconsider the state’s entire capital sentencing system. In response to that ruling, the legislature hurriedly passed a law to address the federal court ruling, but the Florida Supreme Court struck down the new statute. Florida justices said the law was unconstitutional because it only required 10 of 12 jurors to recommend death, instead of unanimous jury decisions.

This new law does include unanimous jury decisions in recommendations of death, but public defenders and criminal defense lawyers contend that the state law remains flawed. Requiring unanimous jury recommendations is “only one step in a long journey,” 10th Judicial Circuit Assistant Public Defender Pete Mills told The News Service of Florida March 10.

“Florida’s death penalty still has problems of constitutional magnitude, including but not limited to the failure to limit the scope of its application, racial disparities, geographic disparities, and execution of the mentally ill,” Mills, chairman of the Florida Public Defenders Association Death Penalty Steering Committee, said after the House overwhelmingly approved the measure.

Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty hoped that lawmakers would use the high court rulings to abolish the death penalty. According to the non-profit group, “now is the time to end the death penalty in Florida not mend it.” On its website — fadp.org — it cites several reasons for abolishment:

• Florida’s Death Penalty costs taxpayers over $50 million a year more than the cost of life in prison with no parole;
• Due to budget cuts, vital public safety programs could be cut by 10 percent in 2017;
• So far 26 individuals have been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to Florida’s Death Row;
• Recent polling shows 62 percent of Floridians now support life without parole over executions;
• The alternative sentence of life in prison with no parole makes executions unnecessary.

As of last year, Florida was one of only three states — along with Alabama and Delaware, which has since blocked the death penalty — that did not require unanimous jury recommendations for death sentences to be imposed. With nearly 400 inmates on Death Row, Florida has more prisoners facing execution than almost any other state. And now, state prosecutors are actively seeking death in 313 cases and report 66 are ready for trial.

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