A proposal to expand the number of prisoners on death row who could have their sentences reviewed by a jury was approved by a Senate committee Tuesday.
The issue dates back to early 2016 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s death penalty was unconstitutional, as it allowed judges to make the final decision on sending a prison to death row. The Supreme Court had ruled similarly in an Arizona case in 2002.
That ruling compelled the Legislature to rewrite its sentencing laws, with the current law now requiring a unanimous jury verdict for the state to impose a death sentence.
The question following the high court’s decision was how many of the several hundred people on death row in Florida would be able to appeal their sentences. The Florida Supreme Court answered that question in December 2016, when it ruled 6-1 that death sentences finalized before that June 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Arizona case would remain in effect.
Former Justice James Perry was the lone dissenter, writing that all death row inmates should have their sentences changed to life in prison. Justice Barbara Pariente agreed with Perry that the ruling should apply retroactively to all death row inmates, but said they should be entitled only to a rehearing, not guaranteed a lesser sentence, the Miami Herald reported.
The proposal from Ocoee Democrat Randolph Bracy (SB 870) would do just that.
“It’s just a matter of justice,” Bracy told Fernandina Beach Republican Aaron Bean when asked why the need for a law after the Supreme Court had weighed in already.
Bracy, the chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, added that the June 24, 2002, cutoff date for death sentence reviews was arbitrary. “I think they should have the right to get a sentence reviewed again, just as the ones after that date are able to,” he told Bean.
Adding his voice in support of the bill was St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, who said it the right and fair thing to do.
While the bill now advances in the Senate, it has yet to get a sponsor in the House.