TALLAHASSEE – Florida lawmakers have approved changes to the state’s death penalty sentencing system in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the old system was unconstitutional.
Gov. Rick Scott signed House Bill 7101 on March 7, changing the sentencing rules for capital felonies to bring them in line with the Supreme Court ruling.
“We are pleased that state lawmakers passed HB 7101, ensuring Florida’s death sentencing statutes are in compliance with Hurst v. Florida,” Kylie Mason, press secretary for the Office of Attorney General Pam Bondi, told the Florida Record.
Until the Supreme Court ruling, Florida was nearly unique in its system of imposing death sentences. The old system of imposing death sentences left the decision to judges. Juries rendered an advisory verdict, which required the recommendation of a majority of the jury. Judges had the power to overrule the jury’s decision based on mitigating factors, such as emotional disturbance and criminal record, but rarely did so.
In January, the Supreme Court ruled on Hurst v. Florida and determined that Florida’s sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment.
“The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the court’s opinion. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”
In the 8 to 1 vote, only Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. dissented. In his dissent, he referenced the repeated reviews by the Supreme Court of the Florida’s capital sentencing statute over the last 25 years. These include Hildwin v. Lorida and Spaziano v. Florida.
Florida has more people on death row than any other state, and only three states have executed more people since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
The new legislation ends nearly two months of gridlock, during which two executions were stayed; and a Pinellas County circuit judge told prosecutors that they could not seek the death penalty because the court had concluded that with no death penalty procedure in place, the death penalty effectively did not exist in Florida.
Under the new legislation, jurors must unanimously agree on the death penalty after determining that the case involves at least one aggravating circumstance that makes it worthy of such a punishment.
Though the constitutionality question has been addressed, there is still much debate over whether and how the new law will apply to inmates already on death row.
The state Supreme Court has already heard an appeal from a death row inmate, claiming he should not be executed because his sentence was unconstitutional. The state argued that the Supreme Court decision could not be applied retroactively. But that was before the new bill. How the law will be applied remains to be seen.
Bondi's office said in a statement that this would most likely be assessed on a case by case basis, at least for the time being.
“Our office remains engaged in ongoing litigation and will continue to respond to each challenge properly presented for review,” Mason said.