Photo via Florida Department of Corrections
After more than a year of uncertainty, Florida is again poised to begin executions and prosecute death penalty cases after Gov. Rick Scott signed a law Monday aimed at fixing flaws in the state's capital sentencing procedure.
"Governor Scott's foremost concern is always for the victims and their loved ones. He hopes this legislation will allow families of these horrific crimes to get the closure they deserve," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in a statement early Monday evening.
The new law —- the second death penalty "fix" in a year —- came in response to a series of court rulings, set off by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January 2016 in a case known as 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.
The Legislature last year 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.
The state and federal court rulings —- and others related to it — created confusion regarding Florida's death penalty, with circuit judges split on whether they could move forward with capital cases until the Legislature addressed the issue of unanimity.
Although the Florida court recently decided capital cases could proceed even in the absence of a statutory fix, 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 proposal (SB 280) Thursday, and the House approved the measure by a 112-3 vote the following day.
Under the law, juries will have to unanimously recommend death for the sentence to be imposed on defendants convicted of capital crimes.
With nearly 400 inmates on Death Row, Florida has more prisoners facing execution than almost any other state.
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.
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.
The "fix" authorized by lawmakers last year, and signed by Scott, required, among other things, at least 10 jurors to recommend death. But a majority of the Florida Supreme Court decided that the state's constitutional right to trial by jury required unanimous jury recommendations, as in every other jury verdict, for death to be imposed.
Lawmakers backing this year's effort maintained that, even if they disagreed with the court-ordered unanimity requirement, they were willing to back the change to put the state's death penalty system back on track.
"It was important to me that, in the very first week of session, that we address this issue so we have a constitutional statute —- as juries are being selected and as families of victims are in court in very stressful circumstances and in very difficult circumstances, we want a law that is orderly and structured and constitutional,” Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said Thursday, after his chamber's vote.
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 on Friday.
"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.