Amid death penalty reform debate, a call for fewer qualifying crimes

By Troy Kinsey, Capitol Bureau Reporter
Last Updated: Thursday, February 16, 2017, 6:50 PM EST

As legislation to reform Florida's death penalty sentencing law speeds toward final passage, critics are calling on Republican leaders to broaden the legislation in order to avoid another encounter with the state Supreme Court.

  • New bills require unanimous jury for death sentences
  • Based on Florida Supreme Court rulings
  • Critics say too many crimes qualify for the death penalty

In October, the court struck down a reform package passed last year by the GOP-controlled legislature, ruling the package's provision allowing for supermajority votes by juries for death sentences was unconstitutional. Given the gravity of a death sentence, the court decided, only unanimous votes will do.

Under the legislation (HB 527/SB 280), unanimity would be required, satisfying the court's ruling and, Republicans hope, ending a series of legal setbacks that have effectively thrown dozens of death penalty cases into limbo for more than a year.

"For me, it's important that there's an orderly system of justice in place for families of victims," said Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart).

The legislation unanimously passed the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee this week, but not before a bipartisan chorus of critics testified in support of expanding the measure to shorten the list of crimes that qualify for death sentences. Those aggravating and mitigating factors, as they're known in legal parlance, have caused Florida's docket of capital cases to explode, prompting questions about their constitutionality.

"It will give us a constitutional death penalty process for now," Florida Public Defenders Association President Rex Demmig said of the House bill. "What it does not do is correct or address the myriad of other constitutional problems that have been raised over the course of years."

Another point of contention is how to handle the cases of hundreds of death row inmates sentenced under the now-unconstitutional scheme. In its ruling, the Florida Supreme Court ordered that some, but not all, of the inmates should receive new sentencing trials. Reformers are now advocating for a legislative mandate that any inmate sentenced with less than a unanimous jury recommendation should receive a new trial.

"In short, what the bill does is resolve the constitutional crisis de jour, while kicking the can, or in this case, perhaps, the barrel of other problems further down the road," Demmig said.