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Proposed Changes to Florida’s Death Penalty Jury Requirements

Recently the Supreme Court has agreed to evaluate the role that juries play in criminal cases when sentencing the death penalty. The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the issue of the jury role in death penalty sentencing is based largely on a recent criminal proceeding where the jury was split as to whether the death penalty should apply to the defendant in question (7-5 recommending death penalty) and further, if juries should be allowed to determine the capital punishment of defendants who are mentally or intellectually disabled.

The Current Death Penalty Rule in Florida

In Florida, there is no requirement that the jury during sentencing unanimously agree on the imposition of the death penalty, and split decisions are permitted. Florida also does not require juries to be unanimous when determining what aggravating factors justify death sentences, as most states do. As the current Florida ruling stands, juries must vote by majority in recommending the death penalty.

What are Aggravating Factors?

Aggravating factors are any extenuating circumstances making the criminal offense especially heinous or violent. Aggravating factors generally include the level of violence, the type of instrument of violence used, if the victim was a child or otherwise in a vulnerable position, etc.

Florida Senate Proposed Bill

Not only will the Supreme Court review these issues, but a Florida Senate bill is currently floating throughout the Florida legislature that would require that Florida fall in line with most other states and require that juries must be unanimous before applying the death penalty. The bill also will focus on the role that juries have in measuring the extent to which aggravating factors outweigh other mitigating circumstances within a criminal case before being able to recommend capital punishment.

Who Can Receive the Death Penalty?

The Florida Senate Bill will address the issues of the jury’s role in sentencing when it comes to recommending the death penalty or a life imprisonment sentences, which are available for those defendants who have committed capital felonies. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution requires that all defendants must be free from cruel and unusual punishment, which is why there are certain restrictions on sentencing. In this way, juries are not permitted to recommend the death penalty or life imprisonment for a defendant who shoplifted, for example.

The Specific Changes in the Legislation

The current sentencing legislation for capital felonies requires the jury to outweigh mitigating circumstances against aggravating factors. The amendment reverses this and requires the jury to determine if aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors. The difference in language is slight but crucial. It forces juries to assume that there are already mitigating factors and, therefore, the death penalty is not the status quo or default but must be applied in the face of the mitigating factors due to aggravating factors.

The Effect of the Amendment If Passed

The amendment to the current legislation also puts into effect, on or after July 1, 2015, the imperative requirement that juries reach a unanimous decision when determining the applicability of the death sentence to any capital criminal defendant. Additionally, the jury, if it finds that there are aggravating factors that outweigh the mitigating circumstances, must prove beyond a reasonable doubt by unanimous vote that each aggravating factor was present in the case. This is also important as every single person within the jury must agree that that the factor in question was aggravating (some might find the factor to be less than aggravating, for example) and that it actually was present within the case. Finally, the jury must show that these aggravating factors can justify the application of the death penalty to the criminal defendant in question.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

The death penalty should be the exception, not the rule. An experienced Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik will ensure that you are being advocated for zealously and help you defend against cruel and unusual punishment. Contact the Law Offices of Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation.

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