BY DAVID OVALLE
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
MIAMI — A Miami-Dade judge has ruled that Florida’s death penalty is unconstitutional because jurors are not required to agree unanimously on execution — a ruling that will add to the ongoing legal debate over Florida’s capital punishment system.
Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch on Monday issued the ruling in the case of Karon Gaiter, who is awaiting trial for first-degree murder.
Hirsch wrote that Florida’s recently enacted “super majority” system — 10 of 12 juror votes are needed to impose execution as punishment for murder — goes against the long-time sanctity of unanimous verdicts in the U.S. justice system.
“A decedent cannot be more or less dead. An expectant mother cannot be more or less pregnant,” he wrote. “And a jury cannot be more or less unanimous. Every verdict in every criminal case in Florida requires the concurrence, not of some, not of most, but of all jurors — every single one of them.”
Power of jurors
Hirsch’s order comes with Florida’s controversial death penalty law remains very much in flux.
In January, in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state’s death sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries. For decades, jurors only issued majority recommendations, with judges ultimately imposing the death penalty.
The high court, however, did not rule on the unanimity question. Except for Alabama and Florida, all other states that have the death penalty require a unanimous jury verdict to impose the death sentence.
Last week, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Hurst case, with critics of the law arguing that all 390 Death Row inmates should get life sentences because they were sentenced under a flawed system.
‘Question of justice’
After the Hurst case was decided in January, Florida lawmakers were forced to fix the death penalty sentencing scheme. Florida’s new law requires juries to unanimously vote for every reason, known as aggravating factors, that a defendant might merit a death sentence.
Whether to actually impose the death sentence requires 10 of 12 jurors.
“All of these changes inure to the benefit of the defendant,” Assistant State Attorney Penny Brill wrote in a motion in the Gaiter case earlier this year. “These requirements render Florida’s system constitutional under the United States Supreme Court’s precedents.”
Judge Hirsch, in his order, said the fixes don’t matter.
“Arithmetically the difference between 12 and 10 is slight,” Hirsch wrote. “But the question before me is not a question of arithmetic. It is a question of constitutional law. It is a question of justice.”