Florida

Florida

A Mid-Year Review: Halfway Through 2016, Execution Pace Remains at Historic Low

Six months into 2016, the pace of executions in the United States remains at the same level as the 24-year low set in 2015. Fourteen executions have been carried out so far this year in five states - Texas (6), Georgia (5), and one each in Alabama, Florida, and Missouri - while 23 other scheduled executions have been halted by stays or reprieves. States carried out 28 executions in 2015. Eight executions are currently scheduled for the second half of the year, with seven in Texas and one in Georgia. Death penalty cases in two states that have carried out executions this year - Alabama and Florida - as well as in Delaware, are in limbo as state courts decide the ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida, which struck down Florida's death sentencing scheme. The Supreme Court also ruled in favor of death row prisoners in two other major cases this spring. The Court overturned the Georgia conviction of Timothy Foster because prosecutors unconstitutionally excluded blacks from the jury, and it directed state courts in Alabama and Mississippi to reconsider capital convictions in two other cases in which similar abuses have been alleged. The Court also ordered a new appeal for Terry Williams in Pennsylvania because of judicial bias in his earlier appeal. Executions also have been affected by the ongoing controversy concerning lethal injection. In May, Pfizer joined numerous other pharmaceutical companies in implementing sales and distribution restrictions to prevent states from using its products in executions. Two states - Louisiana and Arizona - have recently announced that they are unable to obtain lethal injection drugs and Arkansas' supply of the lethal injection drug midazolam expired on June 30.

Judge Rules Florida's New Death Penalty Law Violates Its State Constitution

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch (pictured) ruled on May 9 that Florida's new death sentencing law violates the state's constitution. Ruling in the case of Karon Gaiter, who is awaiting a capital trial, Judge Hirsch said new law's requirement that at least 10 jurors agree to the death penalty before a defendant can be sentenced to death violated Florida's constitutional requirement that all jury verdicts must be unanimous. "For the ultimate decisions made within the judicial branch of government—guilty or not guilty, life or death—majority rule is insufficient," Hirsch wrote. "We do ask, indeed we insist, that the decisions of capital juries be, in some sense, perfect; for they are, in some sense, final. We ask, indeed we insist, that they reflect the will of all rather than the will of the few or even of the many.... However outrageous a crime, however controversial a case, as Floridians and Americans we ... cannot accede, we will not accede, we have never acceded, to outcomes as to which no more can be said than that some jurors have spoken." Hirsch wrote that the state's previous death penalty statute, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida, did not raise this constitutional question because the jury's advisory penalty-phase sentencing recommendation "was, in effect, a straw poll" rather than a verdict. Hirsch's decision comes as the Florida Supreme Court considers how Hurst will affect the nearly 400 death row prisoners sentenced under the previous sentencing scheme. The Miami-Dade state's attorney's office said it would appeal Hirsch's ruling.

NEW VOICES: A Leader of Florida Federation of Young Republicans Calls for Re-examination of Death Penalty

Saying that if one is looking to identify "failed government programs ..., Florida's death penalty certainly fills the bill," Brian Empric (pictured), vice-chairman of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans, presents a conservative case against the death penalty. In a recent guest column for the Orlando Sentinel, Empric says that - as the Florida legislature weighs its response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida - the state should halt all executions "[u]ntil the constitutionality of our sentencing process is satisfactorily addressed.... [M]ore important," he adds, "Floridians are being presented with a great opportunity to re-examine capital punishment." Empric argues that the death penalty conflicts with conservative pro-life values and that "it is impossible to square capital punishment with these views." He goes on to describe systemic problems in the administration of capital punishment that he believes violate conservative principles. He highlights the "prosecutorial misconduct, mistaken eyewitness testimony, and reliance on erroneous forensic testimonies" that has led to Florida's 26 death row exonerations - the most in the nation. "The human element in the process," he says, "assures us that the death penalty will never be entirely accurate, but when potentially innocent lives hang in the balance, we cannot accept anything less than perfection." He cites a study that found Florida could save at least $50 million by replacing the death penalty with life without parole, and notes that Jefferson County, "was forced to freeze employee raises and slash its library budget just to fund two capital cases." He calls the death penalty, "a government program that fails to achieve its intended objectives," and concludes, "It's an issue that should be of concern to conservatives and anyone committed to limited government and eliminating wasteful and ineffective government programs."

Death Cases in Limbo As Florida, Delaware Courts Consider Ramifications of U.S. Supreme Court Decision

Capital cases are on hold in Florida and Delaware as their state courts consider the impact of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hurst v. Florida. The Hurst decision ruled that Florida's sentencing procedure was unconstitutional because a judge, rather than a jury, determined the aggravating factors that made a case eligible for a death sentence. The Florida Supreme Court has already delayed one Florida execution to decide whether, and to what extent, the ruling should be applied retroactively. It's decision is expected to affect the cases of more than 300 prisoners on Florida's death row. At the same time, in the absence of a lawful mechanism to conduct capital trials, Florida trial judges are delaying new trials or removing the death penalty from the case. In Delaware, one of only two states besides Florida that doesn't require a unanimous jury to impose a death sentence, Superior Court Judge Paul Wallace has asked the Delaware Supreme Court to rule on whether Hurst affects death penalty cases in that state. In requesting review by the Supreme Court, Wallace cautioned that "Delaware's capital cases must proceed only under sentencing procedures that comport with federal and state constitutional requirements for the determination of a potential sentence of death." More than two dozen capital trials - including four that are scheduled to begin in the next several months - could be put on hold if the Delaware Supreme Court agrees to take up the issue. The Florida Supreme Court stayed the February 11 execution of Cary Michael Lambrix while it decides how the decision will affect those already on death row. Meanwhile, the Florida House Criminal Justice Committee approved a measure to narrowly address the problems found in Hurst by requiring a unanimous agreement of the jury on at least one aggravating factor while the Senate is considering legislation to require unanimous jury agreement on both aggravating cirumstances and the recommendation of death. 

Florida Holds Hearing On Capital Sentencing As Experts Urge Reform

In an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero (pictured) and ABA Death Penalty Assessment Team member Mark Schlakman call on the Florida legislature to repair the constitutional violations in Florida's capital sentencing scheme. The U.S. Supreme Court found in Hurst v. Florida that the state's sentencing process violates the Sixth Amendment because a jury does not unanimously find the aggravating factors that justify a death sentence. Cantero and Schlakman urge the legislature to enact legislation to "require unanimity for findings of aggravators and recommendations of death." Such a measure has the support of the American Bar Association, which highlighted Florida's sentencing scheme as an area of "critical concern" in a 2006 report and passed a resolution in 2015 urging all states to adopt unanimity in capital sentencing. At a Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing on January 27, public defenders, retired judges, and death penalty experts testified in favor of requiring jury unanimity in order to recommend a death sentence, saying that such a change would prevent further constitutional challenges. Florida prosecutors also testified, asking legislators to require unanimous findings of aggravating factors, and at least nine jurors to recommend a death sentence. Currently, Florida is one of just three states, along with Alabama and Delaware, that does not require a unanimous jury to impose a death sentence.

Report Finds 74% of Florida Death Row Inmates Had Non-Unanimous Death Verdicts

Florida's death row would be three-quarters smaller if the state followed the practice of all but two other states and required that a jury unanimously agree that a death sentence can be imposed before a defendant can be sentenced to death. Alabama and Delaware also permit judges to impose death sentences following non-unanimous jury recommendations for death. After an 18-month investigation into the cases of Florida's 390 death-row prisoners, The Villages Daily Sun found that judges had imposed death sentences 287 times (74%) after jurors had split on whether to recommend death. The paper found that 43% of the state's death-row prisoners would have received life sentences if, as is required in Alabama, the state required a "supermajority" vote of jurors (10 or more) before the jury could recommend death. Florida's high rate of death sentencing has driven up the costs of housing the state's death row, which state officials have estimated at between $8.7 and $9.6 million annually. The state's sentencing scheme was recently struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida because its statute permitted the judge, rather than the jury, to determine whether the prosecution had proven "aggravating circumstances" that make a capital defendant eligible for a death sentence. Although Delaware, like Florida, allows a recommendation for death by a simple majority of the jury (7 out of 12), it first requires the jury to unanimously find the aggravating factors that justify a death sentence. Florida's next scheduled execution is that of Michael Ray Lambrix, set for February 11. The Florida Supreme Court has ordered briefing in Lambrix's case on how the Hurst decision affects his case and whether it should be applied retroactively to other cases. The Court has scheduled oral argument for February 2.

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