Florida finally taking steps to resume death penalty cases

Published: February 6, 2017 11:10 PM EST
Photo Credit: MGN

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – With death penalty cases grinding to a halt across the state, the Florida Legislature is finally taking its first – and probably only steps- to fix the law so prosecutors can resume cases once again.

Legislators are moving ahead with a measure that would require a unanimous jury verdict in cases where the death penalty is being sought.

Just a year ago legislators rejected the idea, but the state Supreme Court last October struck down a 2016 law that said the death penalty could be imposed after a 10-2 jury vote.

A Senate panel on Monday approved a bill requiring a unanimous jury verdict and a similar measure is being considered in the state House. The legislation could be among the first bills passed and sent to Gov. Rick Scott when the session officially kicks off in March.

“It is important that we have an orderly system of justice in place for both families of victims and individuals charged with serious crimes,” said Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Ocoee Democrat who sponsored the bill. “This legislation removes ambiguity from our death penalty statute, which will help reduce delays in due process for all parties involved in death penalty cases.”

Bracy’s bill, however, doesn’t address other questions raised by recent court decisions, including whether or not the state’s nearly 400 current death row inmates deserve a new sentencing hearing if a jury did not unanimously recommend the death penalty.

Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Joe Negron, said he wants to keep the legislation narrow to get it passed quickly.

Florida’s death penalty law has been thrown into a confusing and chaotic situation because of a case involving Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of using a box cutter to kill a co-worker at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant in 1998. A jury had divided 7-5 over whether Hurst deserved to die, but a judge imposed the death sentence.

The state Supreme Court initially upheld that sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court a year ago declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision. Since that time, Florida has not gone ahead with any executions.

The Legislature responded by overhauling the law but, citing the case of serial killer Ted Bundy and others, rejected calls to require a unanimous jury decision in future cases.

In the past three months, Florida justices have responded with a series of rulings that put the death penalty in limbo again. First the court struck down the law allowing a 10-2 jury vote, but then they followed it with another decision that found that all death sentences imposed before a key 2002 U.S. Supreme Court death penalty ruling can remain in place. The court in late December declared in a separate ruling that anyone who received a death sentence after that 2002 decision could be eligible for a new sentencing hearing.

Bracy wanted to amend his bill so all current death row inmates would be treated the same but said he didn’t have the votes to get the proposal adopted. Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, complained that legislators should be taking a comprehensive look at the death penalty to avoid having to deal with the issue year after year. But he said that some legislators are concerned they would look “weak” on the death penalty.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee reported that there are more than 300 death penalty cases pending across the state, including 66 that are now ready for trial. Prosecutors have put some of these trials on hold while they wait for the Legislature to act.