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The Future of the Death Penalty in Florida: Will Jury Unanimity Be Required by the Florida Supreme Court?

The future of the death penalty system in Florida is currently on trial in the Florida Supreme Court. After considering arguments made in October of this year, the Florida Supreme Court will provide a ruling on the fate of the death penalty system by the beginning of 2016. The issue: the constitutionality of the current death penalty system where a jury only needs a bare majority of seven of 12 jurors to recommend the death sentence. According to current practice, Florida is the only state where the jury does not need to unanimously agree on the death sentence and only requires the above-defined bare majority.

The Issue Being Reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court

The issue came to light in the couple of years due to the impending death sentence of Timothy Lee Hurst who was recommended by a 7-5 vote to receive the death penalty. Hurst was convicted for the 1998 murder of a fast-food employee during a robbery. Hurst’s lawyers challenged the bare majority requirement as being unconstitutional, and the Florida Supreme Court will decide whether the current system should be changed. This will not be the first time that Florida legislators from both sides of the aisle have tried and failed to change state law requiring unanimous recommendation by the jury for death. This issue is particularly important currently with Governor Rick Scott’s push toward accelerating executions, as well as the startling statistic that Florida has had 25 of its death sentences reversed by the courts (Florida is currently in the lead for most number of reversed death sentences).

The Current Death Penalty System in Florida

Not only is the Florida Supreme Court involved in the debate, but two legislators are pushing forward bills that will require all juries in capital cases to agree unanimously on whether the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances that lead to the death penalty. The death penalty, in the current system, requires a finding of aggravating circumstances (such as the nature and quality of the crime, the mental state of the defendant, and the defendant’s past criminal record, to name a few) that would make the death penalty a deserving sentence for the criminal defendant. Currently, juries do not have to agree unanimously on whether the aggravating and mitigating circumstances lead to the logical conclusion that the death penalty is the correct punishment. The judge, however, puts considerable weight to a jury’s recommendation for the death penalty, even where juries are not unanimous.

Proposed Bills in the Florida Legislature

According to the proposed House Bill 157 and its supporting counterpart bill in the Senate, the jury must determine, unanimously, that identified aggravating circumstances outweigh identified mitigating circumstances. This is compared to the current practice which requires a lower threshold, that mitigating circumstances outweigh the aggravating circumstances. Though the language seems only slightly changed, the effect of the change requires the jury to meet a high threshold before they may recommend that the criminal defendant deserves the death penalty. Each aggravating circumstance that is used to justify the jury’s recommendation must also be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

Florida still permits the use of the death penalty for capital crimes. As such, any capital charges being faced by a criminal defendant could lead to the ultimate sentence. An experienced criminal defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik can make all the difference in the life of a criminal defendant who may be facing life and death. Contact Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation in the Fort Lauderdale area.

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