Florida Supreme Court To Allow Non-Unanimous Death Sentences

In a major decision Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court reversed a 2016 ruling and declared that split juries can recommend death sentences.

In a majority opinion, Florida’s highest court ruled that it “got it wrong” when it decided that the state’s death penalty scheme, which allowed death sentences to be imposed by the recommendation of non-unanimous juries, violated the Florida constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Lest there be any doubt, we hold that our state constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment…does not require a unanimous jury recommendation—or any jury recommendation—before a death sentence can be imposed,” the majority opinion stated. “The text of our constitution requires us to construe the state cruel and unusual punishment provision in conformity with decisions of the Supreme Court interpreting the Eighth Amendment.”

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty law on Sixth Amendment grounds in 2016 because it relied too heavily on determinations by judges, rather than juries. In response, state legislators rewrote the law, but the new law only required 10 out of 12 jurors to recommend the death penalty.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled several months later that the new law violated the state constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, which the court said required a unanimous jury recommendation in death penalty cases.

Since the 2016 decision, the court has flipped from liberal-leaning to majority-conservatives.

Alabama is the only other state that allows non-unanimous jury recommendations in death penalty cases. It also allows judges to override jury recommendations in capital cases. Delaware similarly allowed non-unanimous juries to impose capital punishment, but that state’s high court struck down the law in 2016.

According to a 2016 report by the Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project’s, 89 percent of Florida and Alabama’s death penalty sentences since 2010 were decided by non-unanimous juries.

In a lone dissent to Thursday’s decision, Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga wrote that the majority opinion “returns Florida to its status as an absolute outlier.” 

“The majority gives the green light to return to a practice that is not only inconsistent with laws of all but one of the twenty-nine states that retain the death penalty, but inconsistent with the law governing the federal death penalty,” Labarga wrote. “Further, the majority removes an important safeguard for ensuring that the death penalty is only applied to the most aggravated and least mitigated of murders. In the strongest possible terms, I dissent.”

According to the Florida Phoenix, Florida has had more exonerations of death row inmates than any other state in the country—roughly one for every three executions carried out by the state.

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