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Florida House Dems Call Bill Enhancing Penalties For Child Murder Unconstitutional

Enhancing the penalties for someone who murders a child under the age of 18 could be one step closer to becoming law.  While a measure doing just that recently passed the Florida House, some Democrats say the bill could negatively impact juveniles and is an unconstitutional measure.

Republican Representative Frank Artiles of Miami is the sponsor of the bill that would create stricter penalties for anyone who murders a child age 17 and younger.

“This bill is simple. It protects children by prosecuting those who murder children. This bill permits rather than requires a prosecutor to reclassify a murder offense to the next felony degree higher,” said Artiles.

For example, a person who commits third degree murder could go from a second degree felony charge to a first degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

And, a person who commits second degree murder could go from a first degree felony charge to a capital felony punishable by death or life in prison.

“The problem that we have with this bill is that it’s going to allow a 17-year-old who accidentally kills another 17-year-old will now be facing the death penalty,” asked Democratic Leader Perry Thurston.

Thurston called the bill a continued attack on juveniles in the system—a system he says even the courts have called into question.

“Our system has been called cruel and unusual punishment—not by the Florida Supreme Court, where we’re always getting overturned all the time—but by the U.S. Supreme Court. We’ve got cases coming down now, where we’re resentencing juveniles [who have] life sentences for non-homicidal crimes. So, now we’re going to be able to impose the death penalty on juveniles,” said Thurston.

“Which leads us to this final point: if what is being argued is unconstitutional, then why are we cosigning on something that is unconstitutional,” added Democratic Representative Kionne McGhee.

But, Republican Representative Erik Fresen says he believes the statement the bill is making trumps any constitutional challenge.

“If we had to challenge that through our constitutional process to see whether or not it’s constitutional, let’s do it! Because what could better, what better of a statement to make as a Legislature than to say that when it comes to these horrific, heinous crimes on our children, that we are going to allow some prosecutorial discretion  to go to a higher capital offense,” said Fresen.

And, Republican Representative Carlos Trujillo of Miami says he wants to set the record straight to Democrats’ claims that a juvenile could be put to death, if this bill becomes law.

“The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled under the Graham decision that a juvenile under any circumstances—he could come up here and shoot up the entire chamber—a juvenile could never, never, ever be put to death. How about in non-capital cases could a juvenile be put to death? Absolutely inaccurate, they cannot," said Trujillo.

"So, what does this bill do? It allows prosecutors, doesn’t obligate them, it gives prosecutors the discretion, that if you kill a child, if you kill a five-year-old in a drive-by shooting and you stand on top of them with an AK-47 and you pump 12 rounds into that kids head, you could be put to death.”

Meanwhile, bill sponsor, Representative Artiles tried to put his bill into perspective by listing a certain example that he says drove him to press forward on the bill.

“Kylie Castillo, five-month-old was killed when her father took a nap. After he threw her up in the air, she fell, he left her there, and he went to take a nap. When her mom got home, she was dead," said Artiles.

"If you believe, 2 years is sufficient for the killing of a baby like Kylie Castillo, then vote no, but if you believe that punishing those who kill children under the age of 17 should have longer sentences within the guidelines of our laws and statutes. Then, please vote yes, and support this good bill. Thank you," he added to applause from lawmakers.

The bill passed the Florida House 79 to 37 largely along party lines with most Democrats opposed. Meanwhile, its Senate companion is currently stalled with two more stops to go before it can head for a floor vote.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.