It’s been a year since the U.S. Supreme Court deemed Florida’s process of deciding death penalty cases unconstitutional for the second time.
Florida had a long-standing practice of allowing imposition of the death penalty without the unanimous support of a jury. Before the 2016 ruling in Hurst v. Florida, courts here only required a recommendation of a simple majority of jurors (7-5), though the decision was ultimately up to the judge. Not Ok, ruled the U.S. Supreme Court, finding it a violation of the Sixth Amendment. The state legislature revised the rules, deciding at least 10 out of 12 jurors needed to agree in order to impose the death penalty. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that still wasn’t good enough, as it violated the Eighth Amendment’s provision against cruel and unusual punishment. Juror input and consensus is mandatory in capital cases.
Now, the Tampa Bay Times reports that since those two rulings, there have been “far fewer” convicted murderers sentenced to death in the state.
In 2012, the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center reported there were 22 people sentenced to death in Florida. That number had started to fall anyway, slipping to nine by 2015. However, in 2016, the year of the landmark Hurst decision, that number dropped to three. Last year, just three other defendants were condemned to die. Most of the others have been handed life in prison.
Of the three cases last year that resulted in a unanimous death penalty verdict:
- A man in North Naples who killed his wife and five children by slitting their throats.
- A man in state prison for armed robbery who beat to death his cell mate.
- A man convicted of beating, stabbing and shooting his estranged wife to death (he’d also reportedly tried to electrocute her) while her children were at school.
This is not to say that death penalty cases are off the table entirely or that defendants no longer require the services of a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney. The reality is, the stakes are still incredibly high in these cases. Some defendants frankly feel the difference between a life of incarceration or a government-sanctioned death following about a dozen years of appeals isn’t much. Nonetheless, these rulings marked an important turning point in ensuring defendants’ rights are protected and the Florida courts are affording them full due process.
In fact, there were fewer new death sentences in the Sunshine state during the last two years put together than in any single year prior to that, since the death penalty was reinstated here back in the beginning of the 1970s.
The Hurst decision inevitably was going to result in fewer Florida death penalty cases, but we may not be able to equate this drop solely to the two recent court decisions because there has been a substantial drop nationally. Where there more than 300 in 1994 across the U.S., there were fewer than 40 last year. There may even be a resurgence of death penalty cases in the next year or two, given that some of the cases had been stalled in the pipeline, awaiting a high court decision in Hurst.
It’s worth noting that Florida is the No. 1 in the country for death row exonerations, with 27 total. Opponents of the death penalty in general have cited this fact, as well as the high costs of appeals, as reasons why we should scrap the death penalty altogether.
Still, this does not negate the need for a vigorous defense in Florida felony cases.
Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Far fewer Florida killers are sentenced to die after courts require unanimous juries, April 12, 2018, By Laura C. Morel, Tampa Bay Times
More Blog Entries:
Florida Arrest Diversion Bill Considered by State Lawmakers, March 28, 2018, Broward Criminal Defense Attorney Blog