Unanimity or Bust: The Changing Landscape of the Death Penalty in Florida

JORDAN GRAY—No matter where you fall in the depths of the death penalty debate, it is undisputed that Florida currently has the second largest death-row population in the country with almost four hundred inmates waiting to meet the needle that will put an end to their years in solitary. But times may be changing.

Prior to October 2016, Florida was one of only two states that still allowed judges to impose the death penalty after non-unanimous jury recommendations. However, on October 14th, the Florida Supreme Court removed Florida from that minority when it decided two formative death penalty cases. In order to fully understand those two cases, however, it is imperative to first evaluate what Florida’s death penalty has been and how it has recently been influenced by United States Supreme Court decisions.

Previously, if a defendant was found guilty of a capital felony in Florida (first degree murder, felony murder, capital drug trafficking, or capital sexual battery), then the jury would have the opportunity to recommend the death penalty to the judge during sentencing. In order to give that recommendation, at least seven of the twelve jurors needed to find the following: 1) all of the aggravating factors were proven beyond a reasonable doubt; 2) the aggravating factors were sufficient to impose death; and 3) the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating circumstances. Some examples of aggravating factors include a defendant having prior convictions, a crime that is “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel,” or a victim that is an on-duty law enforcement officer. Some examples of mitigating factors for the jury to weigh against the aggravating factors include a defendant with a non-existent criminal record, commission of the crime occurring while defendant was under the influence of “extreme mental or emotional disturbance,” or a defendant who was an accomplice to the capital felony.

In 2002, the Supreme Court delivered a necessary awakening to Arizona about its death penalty laws when it held in Ring v. Arizona that a jury, not a judge, must make the factual findings to support an imposition of the death sentence onto a defendant. From that moment, it was only a matter of time before the Florida legislature needed to make a few crucial changes. That day of reckoning finally came in January 2016 when, in keeping with the reasoning of its decision in Ring, the Supreme Court released its opinion for Hurst v. Florida. In that opinion, Justice Sotomayor held that a portion of Florida’s capital sentencing scheme was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment because it did not require that the jury determine the necessary facts before imposing the death penalty. The Court famously stated that the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury “required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s factfinding.”

Pursuant to the holding in Hurst, Florida changed its sentencing statute in March 2016. Among other revisions to Florida Statute §921.141, §921.141(2)(c) required at least ten jurors to agree that the defendant should be sentenced to death (as opposed to the old law that required only a mere majority to recommend the death penalty). It seemed as though these changes to Florida’s capital sentencing laws might pass the Supreme Court’s test, until a few short weeks ago when the Supreme Court of Florida burst the legislature’s law-writing bubble by holding that the new statute was insufficient.

In Hurst v. Florida, the Supreme Court of Florida declared Florida’s recently-established death penalty law unconstitutional because it does not require the jury to unanimously recommend the death sentence before a judge can impose it. There, the defendant, Timothy Lee Hurst, was found guilty of the first-degree murder of Cynthia Harrison after he robbed the Popeye’s where they both worked. During the sentencing phase of the trial, the jury found by a seven to five vote that Hurst should be sentenced to death. The Supreme Court of Florida overturned that sentence, however, and held that in keeping with the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a jury determination of every critical finding necessary for imposition of the death sentence, juries in the sentencing stage must unanimously agree to recommend the death penalty after unanimously agreeing that all three of the requirements exist (all aggravating factors are proven beyond a reasonable doubt; aggravating factors are sufficient to impose death; the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating circumstances).

Furthermore, Hurst argued that SCOTUS’s Hurst decision required his sentence to be automatically converted into a life sentence. That is, Florida Statute §775.082(2) mandates that the sentences of prisoners on death row should be converted to life-sentences if the death penalty is ever declared unconstitutional. The Florida Supreme Court declined to follow this, however, because it felt that the SCOTUS opinion had changed but not completely eliminated the death penalty, and therefore does not change the previously-established death penalties sentenced.

On the same day that the Hurst opinion came down, the Supreme Court of Florida also released a sister opinion, Perry v. Florida. There, the Court combined two separate cases in which both of the defendants were indicted for first-degree murder with the State promising to seek the death penalty. The defendants argued that since the prosecution was still pending, the new §921.141 requirement—that ten jurors must recommend the death penalty—should apply to their respective cases even though the alleged crimes occurred prior to the new §921.141’s effective date of March 7, 2016. The Court ultimately held that because the new §921.141 did not comply with the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Hurst, the ten juror requirement does not apply to pending cases.

Both Hurst and Perry will require Florida’s legislature to edit §921.141(2)(c), but the addition of the unanimous jury recommendation should be a welcome one. It’s difficult to say the exact impact this change will have on the number of individuals who are sentenced to death in Florida; however it is certainly plausible that it will decrease that number enough to move Florida out of the number two spot, which many will see as a positive change.

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