EDITORIALS: Calls for Florida to Revamp Its Untrustworthy Death Penalty System

The Orlando Sentinel in Florida recently called on the state to change the unusual way in which it arrives at death sentences, recommending instead unanimous jury decisions for a death sentence, the prevailing practice in the vast majority of states.  In June, a federal judge declared Florida’s death penalty unconstitutional because it only requires a simple majority to decide whether aggravating factors exist and to recommend a death sentence to the presiding judge.  In 2005, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero urged legislators to make a similar change and require a unanimous jury recommendation in capital sentencing.  The following year, a study conducted by the American Bar Association called for reforms in the state’s death penalty system which has had more exonerations than any other state, with 23 inmates released from death row since 1973.  The chair of the study, Professor Christopher Slobogin, concluded, “Much more needs to be done to ensure that Florida's death penalty system avoids executing the innocent.”  The Sentinel's editorial echoed that concern, “Florida can no longer shrug off travesties of justice that damn innocents such as Frank Lee Smith. After serving 14 years for a rape and murder, DNA testing proved his innocence. Redemption that came 11 months after he died behind bars. Florida simply can no longer accept a simple majority when lives hang in the balance.”  Read the full editorial below.

 United jury needed in death penalty cases

 
In 1981, William Dillon was sentenced to life for a Brevard County murder.
 
Three years later, Anthony Caravella also got life for a rape and murder in Miramar.
 
And in 1996, Chad Heins was sentenced to life for the murder and attempted rape of his sister-in-law in her Mayport home.
 
Had the trio received death sentences, none likely would have lived to see their eventual exonerations. Condemned Florida felons spend an average of 12.9 years on death row before execution. Each languished at least 13 years behind bars before post-conviction DNA testing cleared them.
 
Such troubling foul-ups gave birth to the Florida Innocence Commission. It wisely reviews wrongful conviction cases and gives counsel to avoid similar blunders. Yet, despite the dark cloud shrouding the Sunshine State — a U.S.-high 23 innocent people on Florida's death row have been exonerated since executions resumed in 1979 — the state inexplicably resists applying similar scrutiny to death penalty cases.
 
If Florida intends to administer the death penalty, changes are needed. Florida is the only state that juries by simple majority both decide whether aggravating conditions exist and recommend the death penalty. Getting in sync with the other states that require unanimous juries is a rational first step. It's a step that state Sen. Thad Altman again is smartly championing. Last session, the Viera Republican's bill failed even to earn a hearing.
 
Ignoring calls to review or revamp the way Florida administers the death penalty has become a legislative tradition.
 
In 2005, former state Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, in a majority opinion, urged legislators to require in death penalty cases a unanimous jury recommendation — not simply a mere majority.
 
A solution echoed in a 2006 American Bar Association study. As University of Florida law professor Christopher Slobogin, who chaired the study, declared: "Much more needs to be done to ensure that Florida's death penalty system avoids executing the innocent."
 
But his admonition went unheard. The time's ripe for lawmakers to unstop their ears. In June, a Miami federal judge declared Florida's death penalty unconstitutional because it doesn't require unanimous juries.
 
The state should drop its appeal and seize the reasonable unanimity standard.
 
Florida can no longer shrug off travesties of justice that damn innocents such as Frank Lee Smith. After serving 14 years for a rape and murder, DNA testing proved his innocence. Redemption that came 11 months after he died behind bars. Florida simply can no longer accept a simple majority when lives hang in the balance.
 
("United jury needed in death penalty cases," The Orlando Sentinel, editorial, November 27, 2011).  See Arbitrariness and Innocence.  Read more Editorials about the death penalty.