Florida governor signs bill tightening death penalty

The bill, signed Monday by Governor Rick Scott, makes Florida the latest state to require unanimous jury recommendation before imposing capital punishment.

Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times/AP
Rep. Chris Sprowls listens during a death penalty bill debate at the state Capitol, last week, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Top on the Florida’s legislature’s list of priorities this legislative session: getting the state’s death penalty process back up and running, this time with more stringent requirements for imposing the punishment.

On Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 280 into law. The bill requires a jury to unanimously recommend the death penalty before a judge can impose it. The move brings Florida law in line with death penalty procedures across the rest of the United States, leaving Alabama as the only state that does not require a unanimous jury in order to hand down the death penalty.

The bill was unanimously passed by the Senate and went to the House – where it was supported 112-3 – on just the fourth day of the legislative session.

SB 280 is a response to two court challenges that left Florida’s death penalty process on hold for much of 2016. It attempts to balance the dual imperatives of keeping the death penalty on the books and reducing improper sentencing.

"The law establishes clear statutory standards for how the death penalty can be applied in Florida," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), Reuters reported.

Florida has executed 23 prisoners under Governor Scott, the Associated Press reported. But it also has the second-largest death row in the country, at 382 people, according to Reuters. (California, which has not executed anyone since 2006, has the most people on death row of any state, with a total of 749.)

But challenges to Florida’s death penalty law last year meant that the state carried out just one execution in 2016. In January, the US Supreme Court struck down Florida’s law, saying it let judges determine the facts that would lead to a death sentence and impose a death sentence with a recommendation from a simple majority of jury members, which the Court ruled was a violation of the Sixth Amendment.

In October, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a revised version of the law, which would have allowed judges to impose the death penalty if 10 jurors recommended it.

For supporters, the new law is a way to get Florida’s judicial process back on track. Murder trials that might have resulted in the death penalty had been put on hold while these cases were decided, though they were allowed to resume last month on the assumption that a unanimous jury would be required to impose capital punishment. Critics indicate, however, that the law may need to be revisited in the coming months, as the Orlando Sentinel reported.

In Florida, as at the national level, the death penalty remains a divisive issue. But there appears to be a trend away from the punishment, spurred by a series of high-profile cases of misconduct, botched executions, and expense. In an August poll, Floridians preferred life imprisonment without parole to death by 57 percent to 43 percent, the Death Penalty Information Center reported. This, too, may spur legislators to revisit the law.

“Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year,” said Mr. Dunham in a press release accompanying the DPIC’s 2016 year-end report.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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