Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state’s death penalty law because the law didn’t require jurors to be unanimous (i.e., 12 out of 12 jurors ) when imposing the punishment. State legislators had rushed to fix the law earlier this year after the U.S. Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional because it allowed a judge – and not a jury – to make the final decision as to whether to sentence a person to death.
What Does the New Law Mean for Defendants?
The new law required 10 jurors out of 12 to recommend a sentence of death, which the judge could in turn overrule (while the judge could not overrule a recommendation for life imprisonment). A 5-2 court majority, however, ruled that this setup was still unconstitutional because Florida law requires 12 of 12 jurors during other parts of the sentencing process – including agreement on critical facts that may justify a death sentence.
What About Inmates Currently Awaiting the Death Penalty?
The question this ruling does not answer is what happens to the 400+ inmates sentenced to death under a regime that both the U.S. Supreme Court and Florida Supreme Court have deemed to be legally defective. In other words, can a death row inmate now challenge his or her sentence and request a new sentencing hearing? We think so and here are the two reasons why.
- Florida’s death penalty law itself requires that if the U.S. or Florida Supreme Courts hold the death penalty unconstitutional, persons sentenced to death must be resentenced to life imprisonment. That’s section 775.082(2) of the Florida Statutes, which reads:
In the event the death penalty in a capital felony is held to be unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court, the court having jurisdiction over a person previously sentenced to death for a capital felony shall cause such person to be brought before the court, and the court shall sentence such person to life imprisonment …
Note the use of the word “shall.” It really is that simple – no ifs, ands, or buts.
- There’s this little thing called the rule of lenity. This rule requires that a law be interpreted in the manner most favorable to the defendant. On the books, its section 775.021(1) of the Florida Statutes, which reads:
The provisions of this code and offenses defined by other statutes shall be strictly construed; when the language is susceptible of differing constructions, it shall be construed most favorably to the accused.
There’s that word “shall” again! Just like the first time – no ifs, ands, or buts! We agree with the Florida Supreme Court that a death sentence should require a unanimous jury recommendation. But we think it’s just plain wrong, both legally and morally, that the court didn’t go further and strike down all death sentences in Florida for the reasons stated above. Still, we think that everyone on death row now has a chance to get their sentence reduced to life.
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