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Julie Delegal: The Florida Legislature’s history of intransigence

Second of three parts

ACLU staff attorney Adam Tebrugge and Jacksonville criminal defense attorney D. Gray Thomas say that Florida law destroys the jury-deliberations process in the penalty phase of first-degree murder trials.

But they are not the first people who have noticed the difference between a majority vote and a unanimous one. And it’s a difference that changes the way juries behave. (For an in-depth analysis of the issue, see Alexandra Zayas’ 2013 article in the Tampa Bay Times.)

The Florida Supreme Court took note of the distinction in 2005, citing studies that said that the decision-making process is more “thorough and grave” when jurors are required to reach unanimous decisions. The state’s high court recommended then that the Florida Legislature take action to require penalty-phase verdicts be unanimous to impose capital punishment.

The Legislature declined.

In 2006, The American Bar Association made the same recommendation.

The Legislature declined.

In 2012, Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, introduced legislation to bring Florida’s death penalty sentencing system back into alignment with “hundreds of years” of common law, Zayas wrote.

But, the Legislature declined once more to change the law to require unanimous jury verdicts to impose the death penalty.

Now, in light of a January U.S. Supreme Court ruling, attorneys agree there is no constitutional means by which to sentence convicted murderers to death in Florida. A local coalition of faith and civic leaders, Justice 4 Jacksonville, has asked Jacksonville-area State Attorney Angela Corey to halt all death penalty trials until the Legislature fixes the sentencing laws. Corey said in a statement that she will not:

“The death penalty is still a viable sentence in the state of Florida. We will follow the law, and in appropriate cases State Attorney Corey will still seek the death penalty.  This opinion deals with procedural issues which will be addressed by the Florida Supreme Court and the Legislature.”

Thomas does not disagree with Corey: “The court didn’t hold the death penalty unconstitutional,” he says. “They found the procedure that gives the authority to the judge unconstitutional.”

Corey’s cohort in Orlando, State Attorney Jeff Ashton, has asked judges in his circuit to halt death penalty prosecutions until the law is repaired.

Since the Hurst ruling, at least one Florida circuit court judge has invalidated the state’s attempt to pursue the death penalty in his courtroom. Judge Michael Andrews of Pinellas County concluded in a written order on January 22 “there currently exists no death penalty in the State of Florida in that there is no procedure in place.”

Tomorrow: The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hurst presents more questions than answers.

(To read part one of this series, click here.)

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Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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