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Legislative Push For Another Death Penalty Fix Narrowly Passes First Committee

MGN Online

Already, the Florida Supreme Court has rejected more than three dozen appeals involving death row inmates, who received their sentences before 2002 and did not require unanimous juries. A panel of Florida lawmakers is now trying again to make a fix to that part of the state’s death penalty process.

After listening to the U.S. Supreme Court and later the Florida Supreme Court, the state legislature agreed last year to make sure certain death row inmates have a review of their cases.

That’s because under Florida’s previous death sentencing scheme, a majority of jurors could make a recommendation, but the ultimate decision was up to a judge.

In the Hurst v. State case, the nation’s highest court declared Florida’s death penalty system unconstitutional in 2016 and handed the case back to the Florida Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court justices then agreed that jury’s recommending a sentence of death must be unanimous.

And, the legislature last year passed a bill doing just that and the Governor signed it into law.

But, under the new law, it only applies to those whose death sentence became final on or after June 24, 2002. Why that date? It applies to an old U.S. Supreme Court Ruling.

“June 24, 2002 is the date when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Ring v. Arizona,” said Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando). The ruling in the Ring case was that juries must make the factual determination that allows for constitutional death sentence. The Ring ruling was not applied by Florida courts for 14 years, until in the Hurst v. Florida case. The U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that Ring applied in Florida, just as it did in Arizona, and our courts began to comply.”

Bracy was the Senate sponsor of the 2017 effort. Now, in 2018, he also wants to help those death row who did not have a unanimous jury vote and their death sentence was final before June 24, 2002.

“We now have a June 24, 2002 cutoff date for death sentences reviews, based on Hurst unanimous death sentence vote requirement,” he added. “The bill would make our intent known to Florida courts that we don’t want the courts to limit Hurst review to only the post-Ring part of death cases.”

But, some lawmakers aren’t sold on the idea. That includes Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach), who asked Bracy about the need for the bill.

“If the courts already said, ‘this is how we’re going to move forward.’ Why do we need a bill to do what the courts have already told us to do,” asked Bean.

“I think the date is somewhat arbitrary,” Bracy replied. “So, if a person was sentenced to death before the date of June 24, 2002, I think that they should have the right to have their sentence reviewed again—just as the ones after that date are able to get. I think it’s matter of justice.”

But, Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) likes the bill.

“I’m a big fan with A = A in the law,” he said. “I think in this case, you have the courts who have made a decision, and they have set a date. And, I think we should be consistent throughout the state on how we look at death penalty cases. I think this is the right thing to do. I think this is the fair thing to do. And, I think this is the only way we can say A=A in the law, if we support this legislation.”

And, bill sponsor Bracy says at the end of the day, this is the right thing to do.

“As I’ve stated, I just think it’s a matter of justice,” he concluded. “I think that folks before the date June 24, 2002, should be able to appeal and have the opportunity to have their case looked at.”

And, on a 3-2 vote, the measure narrowly passed the Senate Criminal justice Committee—a panel Bracy chairs. It now has one more committee stop before it heads to the Senate floor. Meanwhile, a House bill has not yet been filed.

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.