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Senate Turns Down Unanimity, Moves Forward With 10-Juror Death Sentences

David July via Flickr

The Florida Legislature is on the verge of approving new death penalty procedures.  The Senate is moving ahead with a compromise proposal from the House.

On the Senate floor Wednesday Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth)—who sits on the criminal justice committee—made his bid for unanimity.

“We debated the bill, we had a workshop on the bill, we heard from experts on the bill,” Clemens says, “and as a committee unanimously decided that we were going to require like most other states a unanimous jury verdict in this particular instance.”

That particular instance is the final sentencing recommendation.  Under the proposals in the House and Senate juries have to be unanimous on the conviction and the aggravating factors that could elevate the sentence to death.  Where the proposals diverge is the final recommendation.  The House began at nine, and as Clemens says, the Senate wanted unanimity.

“We did agree in our criminal justice committee on unanimity,” Committee Chair Greg Evers allows, “but what the problem is, is there’s two bodies in the Legislature.”

The Baker Republican says, “We knew that we had to do something.  There had to be common ground, and so thus was the reason that the bill now is ten-two—to seek that common ground.”

The compromise bill requires ten of the twelve jurors agree on recommending the death penalty, but Clemens is critical of how Evers reached the agreement.

“The underlying issue here is obviously how do we want to treat these issues as a Senate do we want to allow them to be decided by a couple of people?” Clemens asks.  

“Or do we want to do what the Senate traditionally does, which is to allow the Senate to have its voice, and then we send that voice in a group over to the House and we start the back and forth process,” Clemens says.

Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) warns if the Senate fails to act, Florida may end up without a death penalty.

“If this starts bouncing back and forth and there is no agreement then we will end session there will not be resolution to this issue,” Bradley says.  “And those victims’ families will continue to suffer because those cases will not be able to go forward because the judges simply won’t know what to do.”

But Sen. Thad Altman (R-Rockledge) says the risks of that happening are low.

“We don’t have to yield to the House in any way shape or form, one is if we don’t pass a bill our death penalty goes away I don’t believe the House is going to be willing to let that happen,” Altman says.  “So why don’t we send them the best possible product that we can send them.  One that meets constitutional muster, one that’s not going to put us right back where we are today trying to fix an unconstitutional death penalty.”

Clemens’ amendment moving the Senate back to unanimity narrowly failed.  The Senate will likely put the measure to a final vote Thursday.