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Are Juries Safer By The Dozen?

MGN Online

How many people should agree a person is guilty of a crime? Is six enough? Would 12 be better? What if it means that person will spend the rest of their life in prison? Those are questions lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary Committee are working to answer.

Capital cases, or trials that could result in a death penalty charge require 12 jurors in Florida, but a life felony trial requires just 6. Rex Dimmig who represents the Florida Public Defender Association says that hasn’t always been the case.  

“Florida had 12-person juries up until the 1960s. It was only in 1960 that we reduced it from 12 down to six. There’s be a remarkable change in the law from the 1960s up until today,”  Dimmig says.

Dimmig says at that time, people given life sentences had ample parole opportunities and chances to shorten their stay in prison. He says under today’s rules a life sentence really means life. And Dimmig says increasing the number of jurors in life felony cases could increase the number of minorities on juries since more people will be summoned.

“Whether or not that will have an impact on the outcome of cases, nobody can answer that question. What we can answer is that it will give those people the opportunity to feel more involved in the process and whenever our public feels more involved that is a very positive thing,” Dimmig says.

Dimmig says he’s not certain, but if he had to guess he’d say the change from 12 to six jurors was made to help cut costs.

Bill Cervone a state attorney in Gainsville is representing the State Prosecuting Attorneys Association

“I have not heard anything that suggests the quality of justice would be improved by having a 12 versus a six person jury,” Cervone says.

And Cervone points out changing back to 12 jurors would jack costs back up.

“I’m not aware of any study, I know one thing would be a certainty. If it takes X number of hours to pick a six-man jury, it’s going to take twice as long to pick a 12-man jury, with all of the costs to the court system that that includes. And it just seems to make logical sense, that if you have a certain risk of hung jury, you double that risk if you have 12 people,” Cervone says.

That of course means paying for the cost of a new trial, where hopefully jurors will come to a consensus.

But Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) says dollars aren’t what lawmakers should be basing their decision on.

“Because when you balance it out, what’s the value of a life?  And if we can find funds in Florida to give the tax breaks that we give and to propose more, then we can find the money to adequately fund the court system to accommodate the increase in persons who will participate in the jury process,” Joyner says.

A measure to change the number of jurors in life felony cases from 6 to 12 is sponsored by Sen. Gwen Margolis (D-Miami). She says someone facing such a lengthy sentence deserves careful consideration.

“To me it’s critical and for these people it’s life or death. And so the bottom line is they need enough people listening to the story and making a decision and to me six people is not enough,” Margolis says.

Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) says he’d like more time to study the measure, saying it’s something he’d like to revisit in future years. But Margois says this is not a new issue. The committee tied its vote on the bill with a five to five outcome. A tied bill would generally die, but Brandes who had voted against the measure asked that the vote be reconsidered. Then before the committee could take another vote he moved to temporarily postpone the bill.

Follow @Regan_McCarthy

Regan McCarthy covers healthcare and government in Tallahassee, Florida. She is the Assistant News Director for WFSU Public Media.

Phone: (850) 645-6090 | rmccarthy@fsu.edu

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories here.