New Florida law would impose restrictions on death penalty

A bill is headed to the governor's desk as many states shift away from the death penalty.

Ted S. Warren/AP/File
In this Sept. 2010 file photo, Nancy Nelson, right, and Mary Pat Treuthart, left, both of Spokane, Wash., protest outside the Washington State Penitentiary, in Walla Walla, Wash. during the execution of Cal Coburn Brown for a 1991 murder.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) is expected to sign into law a bill that will make it harder for the state to impose the death penalty.

The move comes nearly two months after the US Supreme Court found the state’s capital punishment system unconstitutional because it gives too much power to judges in imposing the death penalty, and not enough to juries, which serve more of an advisory role in Florida, according to the Supreme Court.

The Constitution calls for “a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion, according to The Washington Post. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough,” she wrote.

The court ruling and new Florida bill come at a time of growing concern over the use of the death penalty in states nationwide, some of which are reconsidering their death penalty laws.

Florida jurors now can recommend a death sentence by a 7-to-5 majority vote. The new bill – which passed the state Senate by a vote of 35-5 on Thursday, and the state House of Representatives by a vote of 93-20 last month – requires 10 out of 12 jurors to recommend death for the decision to be made.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Florida state Sen. Arthenia L. Joyner, the Democratic leader, said to The New York Times. “I would prefer a unanimous jury verdict, but you can’t always get what you want when you want it,” she said.

Out of 31 states that have the death penalty, Florida is one of three to allow a non-unanimous verdict. The others are Alabama, which allows a 10-to-2 death verdict, and Delaware, which requires a 7-to-5 majority vote. The laws in all three states are under review.

Florida has 390 inmates facing death, though executions were halted following the Supreme Court decision.

The court’s main objection had to do with Florida’s treatment of aggravating factors that support the death penalty or not. As the Times explains, these “include circumstances that are especially brutal, for example, or a murder committed with premeditation.”  

The new Florida bill requires juries to decide unanimously on the aggravating factors that warrant death. Florida’s existing capital punishment system does not require unanimity, and allows the judge to make the final decision in life or death after taking into account the jury’s recommendation.

“Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional,” wrote Justice Sotomayor, referencing the the Sixth Amendment, which protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury, as The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Alabama’s state court on Thursday ruled that the state’s death penalty law, which is similar to Florida's soon-to-be old one, is also unconstitutional. A judge said that Alabama’s law is worse than Florida’s because it gives judges the power to impose the death penalty by overriding a jury’s life sentence verdict.

And just a day before Alabama’s ruling, Utah lawmakers advanced a bill that seeks to end capital punishment in that state.

“I’m thinking that it’s wrong for government to be in business in killing its own citizens,” said Utah Republican state Sen. Steve Urquhart, who in the past year changed his mind about the death penalty.

“That cheapens life,” he told The Washington Post.

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