Court could change Florida’s death penalty

COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS

TALLAHASSEE – With the lowest threshold in the nation for death sentences, Florida juries are sentencing prisoners to death faster than Gov. Rick Scott can sign their death warrants.

Most of the other 31 states that have the death penalty require a unanimous jury vote. Alabama requires at least a 10-2 vote. Delaware requires jurors to find an aggravating circumstance.

But a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on whether the state’s majority vote is constitutional could go against Florida. Some lawmakers are pushing bills to require a unanimous jury vote for the death penalty.

“I think it just makes sense,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, who is sponsoring SB 330, which would mandate a unanimous jury vote.

Prosecutors object
Prosecutors, including Attorney General Pam Bondi, have argued against changing the jury threshold in the past. They say some of Florida’s most notorious murderers who committed heinous crimes, including serial killer Ted Bundy, would have been spared the death penalty if the threshold were increased.

What could change things this year is the U.S. Supreme Court case and the timing of its ruling.

If the court overturns Florida’s death penalty threshold and issues a ruling before the legislative session ends in March, it gives lawmakers a chance to pass a bill requiring the unanimous jury.

But if that decision isn’t rendered until after the session ends, lawmakers couldn’t do anything about it until 2017, unless they called a special session to deal with the matter. That could create a “moment of chaos in the criminal justice system,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, the sponsor of the House version of the bill.

Rodriguez also said there will likely be a parade of appeals if the court rules against Florida. Any death row inmate who got a less than unanimous jury vote would have a brand new argument in court.

The current threshold has helped add to the death row roster. According to a legislative analysis, from 2000-2012, only 60 out of 296 jury recommendations on death sentences – about 20 percent – were unanimous.

Gray Rohrer of the Orlando Sentinel / TNS contributed to this report.

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