A House committee considering the future of Florida’s death penalty statute heard Tuesday from a man once sentenced to Death Row.
Henry Brown, who described himself as a capital mitigation consultant in Tallahassee, said he was sentenced to death in 1973 but released after he pleaded to second-degree murder in 1993, although he denied killing anyone.
He urged committee members to consider making any changes to the sentencing guidelines retroactive beyond 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court first ruled that juries must decide whether murders deserve the death penalty.
“Had I still been on death row, I wouldn’t fall under that part of the retroactively. I’d be stuck back there,” he said.
“I’ve done some pretty great things since I’ve been out,” he continued. Florida has one of the country’s largest death rows, but “Florida also has the largest population of exonerees in the country. So consider that also.”
The issue is before the Legislature because in October, in a long-litigated case, the Florida Supreme Court voted, 5-2, to strike down Florida’s death penalty law because it doesn’t require a unanimous jury verdict to put someone to death.
Florida now allows death sentences upon 10-2 votes by juries.
Michael Allen, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, noted a rush by capital defendants and their lawyers to have their cases tried while the death statute remains unsettled.
“If one wanted to make a very quick fix, you change 10-2 to unanimous, and you leave everything else in the statute exactly the same,” Allen said.
“That’s not to say somebody else couldn’t raise an issue down the road, but that solves the issue that’s out there right now, for certain.”
Making changes retroactive to 2002 would probably require the state courts to resentence between 150 and 170 people now on death row, Allen said.
If the state limits retroactivity, Brown predicted, “that’s going to be a problem for the Legislature; that’s going to be a problem for the state; that’s going to be a problem for the death penalty. Because it’s going to be litigated. It’s going to go back to the Supreme Court, and Florida wouldn’t be able to carry out its death penalty statute.”