Florida juries are now required to vote unanimously to impose a death sentence, the state’s Supreme Court ruled Friday. Jurors should be unanimous in taking this decision as well as they should unanimously agree on aggravating factors needed for the death penalty, the court said.

The sentencing guidelines were changed nine months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the opinions of judges in Florida were too important during the process of sentencing an individual to death, when the jury was the only one whose responsibility was constitutional, as reported by WLRN.

Judge hammer
“The Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury mandates that under Florida’s capital sentencing scheme, the jury — not the judge — must be the finder of every fact, and thus every element, necessary for the imposition of the death penalty,” the court wrote in its 89-page ruling, according to United Press International. Image credit: Getty Images.

The nation’s highest court ruled in January that Florida judges are not legally authorized to overrule juries in capital cases nor impose a death penalty. By a 5-to-2 vote, Gov. Rick Scott and the state legislature were asked to rewrite the law by the high court. Florida did so and removed the judge figure from the process of sentencing someone to death in a criminal case.

In contrast, the previous law only allowed juries to make an advisory recommendation for the death penalty, meaning that the judge had the final say on the sentence. This law was unconstitutional because the jury’s finding of aggravating factors was useless when it came to taking the decision of sentencing a person to death.

According to a report by NPR’s Nina Totenberg, judges have not taken into account the jury’s advisory on some 300 occasions since the state death penalty took effect in 1972. By acting this way, judges often imposed either the lesser penalty of life or the harsher penalty of death, Totenberg said.

Stephen of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at the Florida International University School of Law, pointed out that the ruling will reduce the number of death penalty cases given that prosecutors will need stronger proof to increase the chances of juries voting unanimously for the sentence.

Pending cases

It remains unclear what will happen to the almost 400 people who are currently on death row and whose punishments were rendered under the earlier sentencing rule because the state has no death penalty until the state Legislature can rewrite the sentencing procedure, as informed by WLRN. These individuals may have a chance to seek less-severe sentences.

As for the more than 40 inmates whose death penalty reviews have not been completed, the immediate effect of Friday’s ruling is that they must be given new sentencing hearings. A unanimous jury must decide what will happen with any pending capital cases in the state for the first time since 1972.

“Today’s decisions will mean that all defendants on Florida’s Death Row whose cases are pending on direct appeal will be entitled to new sentencing hearings unless the state can prove its heavy burden of showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the error in their cases would not have affected the jury verdicts in capital sentencing,’’ said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, as quoted by the Miami Herald.

Source: United Press International