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New Law Overhauls Florida’s Death Penalty System

On Behalf of | Mar 8, 2016 | Violent Crimes

Back in January, our blog reported on a historic decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in Hurst v. Florida, a case examining the constitutionality of the state’s death sentencing system.

Specifically, the case revolved around how state law then-provided that juries in capital murder cases had to recommend either a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole or death with the ultimate determination left to the presiding judge.

In a 8-1 decision, SCOTUS found that this system of laws was unconstitutional, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor writing that a “mere [advisory jury] recommendation is not enough” and that the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial “requires a jury and not a judge to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”

Not surprisingly, the decision in Hurst left many unanswered questions as to how exactly the Sunshine State needed to overhaul its death penalty laws in order to pass constitutional muster and effectively resulted in a moratorium on lethal injections.

In recent developments, it now appears as if at least some of this uncertainty has been resolved, as Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law earlier this week changing the process by which death sentences are handed down.

The new law dictates the following:

  • A minimum of ten jurors, as opposed to seven, must now vote for a death sentence
  • There must be unanimity among the jurors as to the presence of at least one “aggravating circumstance.” This might include something like the murder being carried out during the commission of another felony or being “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.”

While the new law provides resolution in death penalty cases going forward, experts indicate that it does nothing to answer questions about whether the holding in Hurst should apply retroactively to the hundreds of people sitting on death row.

Indeed, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments on this very issue just last month. While no decision has been made, the state’s high court did stay the death sentence of the inmate in the case during the pendency of the proceedings.

Stay tuned for updates …

Given the stakes involved, please consider contacting a skilled legal professional as soon as possible if you have been charged with any sort of violent crime.