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Florida's Death Sentencing Law on Shaky Ground

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Hurst v. Florida, a case challenging whether Florida’s current death penalty laws violate the Sixth or Eighth Amendment in light of the decision made in Ring v. Arizona in 2002. Currently, Florida is the only state in the country that allows death sentences to be recommended by a majority vote of the jury rather than a unanimous vote, and does not require the jurors to justify their decision by declaring any aggravating factors. That decision has been left up to the trial judge.

According to a recent article by Martin Dyckman, this system is in direct opposition to the decision made in the Ring v. Arizona case, which determined that only the jury can find aggravating circumstances, not the judge. Yet Florida has continued to hand down death sentences as if the Ring case never happened. The concern is that jury may not take their duty as seriously knowing that their findings may not have any impact on the final decision.

Dyckman points out that in a state that requires a unanimous vote for shoplifting, it is understandable that many are calling for this problem to be addressed, especially in light of the fact that Florida has led the nation in death-row exonerations since 1976. When innocent lives hang in the balance, there can be no room for questions about the process by which life-and-death decisions are made.

In the case of Hurst, who was convicted of the aggravated murder of a coworker in 1998, a death penalty sentence was reached only by a narrow margin. The judge concluded that there were two aggravating circumstances in his case, but they did not coincide with the defendant’s charges, and it is likely that the jury did not vote for either factor.

According to the article, Hurst’s appeal could throw all existing Florida death-sentencing cases since 2002 into question. Depending on the decision of the Supreme Court, Florida’s death penalty laws may soon require a unanimous verdict by a jury before a person can be sentenced to capital punishment.

Rep. José Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami), an attorney at Kelley/Uustal, is one of many lawmakers who have been trying for years to pass legislation to fix Florida’s flawed death penalty system. His proposal would require unanimous death penalty recommendations justified by specific findings. In advocating for these changes, Rep. Rodriguez has already drawn an opponent who has accused him for “coddling murderers.” He prevailed in spite of this criticism, and is sponsoring the legislation again this year together with Rep. Clovis Watson Jr.
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