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Senate Panel Approves 10-Juror Death Penalty Decisions

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CA Corrections via Wikimedia Commons
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The Senate took its shot at compromise Wednesday for a new capital sentencing scheme.  The chambers are trying to find common ground between unanimous jury recommendations and a supermajority.

A week ago Carlos Trujillo gained passage for a new Florida capital sentencing system.  The Miami Republican and former prosecutor joined a couple of other House Republicans to revise how Florida handles the death penalty.  The US Supreme Court invalidated Florida’s process earlier this year.  Coincidentally, the ruling came down on the first day of this year’s regular session—so naturally lawmakers have been scrambling to come up with a process that would meet judicial scrutiny. 

Trujillo explains the new proposal has three different phases.

“The person has to be found guilty unanimously,” he says of the first step, “every single one of those twelve jurors has to find that person guilty of that crime.”

After a unanimous finding of guilt the jurors have to agree on one or more aggravating factors.

“Every single one of those people have to say one aggravator exists,” he goes on, “and after they take that vote, ten of them still have to say you know what, even though one aggravator exists, and we all agree to it, we should also put that person to death.”

It’s that last vote—recommendation for the death penalty—that has been the point of contention.  And the House’s ten vote proposal is actually a compromise. 

“With them at 9-3, us at unanimity, we felt like that the 10-2 would put us—there’s only one other state that has a ten two and that’s Alabama, there’s 48 states that’s unanimous but we didn’t want to be the only outlier at 9-3,” Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker) says.

Actually, that’s not quite right.  Nineteen states don’t allow the death penalty at all, and among the thirty-one that do, four have a governor imposed moratorium. 

Speaking of governors, Florida’s chief executive Rick Scott is not wading into the fight over jury unanimity.

“I can tell you that the hard days are the days that you have an execution in the state,” Scott says.  “The hard days are when you go through clemency, to you try to figure out how you do—go listen to those individuals that have committed serious crimes and how you—you do it the right way, so it’s a solemn duty, if there’s a bill that makes it to my desk I’ll take the time to review it.”

There’s little doubt changes will make it to his desk, but there is some doubt—and it grew just a bit Thursday in the Senate Appropriations committee.  Shortly after Evers introduced the measure, the committee put the bill on hold.

But many state lawmakers support the death penalty as a matter of principle, and without a new capital sentencing system Florida defendants can’t be sentenced to death.  Senators brought the measure back up a few hours later after trying to work out a different compromise closer to the original senate position of unanimity.  The panel quietly approved the bill, and now it heads on to the Senate floor.