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Florida death penalty fix on the fast track in Legislature

A proposal that would require unanimous jury recommendations for death sentences to be imposed sailed through its first House vetting Wednesday, receiving unanimous approval from the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

The legislation (HB 527), and a similar Senate measure (SB 280), is the latest attempt to get the state’s death penalty — on hold for more than a year — back on track in the wake of a series of court rulings.

The issues began with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January 2016 finding that the state’s capital sentencing system was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.

Lawmakers quickly passed a measure to address the court ruling, which did not address the issue of jury unanimity. The new law included a component that did away with simple majority recommendations for death to be imposed, and instead required at least 10 jurors to agree on death sentences.

But the Florida Supreme Court in October struck down the new law as an unconstitutional violation of the right to trial by jury and said unanimous recommendations are required.

Buddy Jacobs, a lobbyist who represents the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, urged the Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Wednesday to quickly pass the new bill to fix the death penalty.

“We have 50 cases ready to be tried in Florida. Some are picking juries as we speak. This is a real crisis in the criminal justice system, and it’s a real crisis for the victim’s families of these terrible, terrible crimes,” he said.

But defense lawyers, who repeatedly cautioned lawmakers last year against approving a law that did not require unanimity, maintain that the state still has work to do to fix the death penalty statute.

Public defenders contend that the current law is not narrow enough to capture the “worst of the worst,” something that courts look for when evaluating death penalty laws. Florida, one of only two states that does not require unanimous jury recommendations for death, is an “outlier,” 10th Judicial Circuit Public Defender Rex Dimmig said Wednesday.

“Florida will continue to be an outlier after this bill is passed. If Florida is to continue to have a death penalty, comprehensive reform is needed,” he said.

But bill sponsor Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said lawmakers have a duty to ensure that Floridians “have access to justice” in the form of the death penalty.

“The only way to ensure that is to have a constitutional statute, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

The House and Senate measures face their second committee hearings next week before heading to the floor for full votes. The annual legislative session starts March 7.

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