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Friday, August 12, 2022

Florida bill would require unanimous vote for death penalty

Bills that would require a unanimous vote to sentence someone to death haven’t budged in the state House of Representatives and Senate.

Current law stipulates that juries only need a majority vote to sentence a person to death. Florida is the only state with that minimum of a requirement, which has Florida Sen. Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee) concerned. Soto co-introduced SB 148 in December. It was referred to committees but never made it to a vote in any of them.

“Just keep in mind, the folks who are getting a death penalty are getting life in prison,” he said. “Whether they should be executed or not is another question.”

Soto said Florida has seen many people exonerated by DNA evidence, which suggests there needs to be more safeguards in the system.

Katheryn Zambrana, a UF criminology professor, sees more safeguards as a positive thing, which the proposed legislation provides for in more than one way.

Zambrana explained the jury must first unanimously agree the defendant is guilty. In order to sentence the defendant to death with the current law, a jury determines if the aggravating circumstances, such as if a murder was premeditated, outweigh the mitigating circumstances, like if a defendant had a history of child abuse or mental illness.

With the proposed legislation, a jury would have to unanimously prove each aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt and all agree to issue the death penalty.

“The process is longer, but I think it’s better,” Zambrana said. “It’ll reduce the likelihood of wrongful conviction and will ensure that jurors are sure in their conviction.”

However, the legislation is controversial. State Attorney Bill Cervone said he doesn’t see a need for a change in the current law.

“What it does is allow the possibility for one aberrational juror to hold the rest of the jury hostage to their own personal belief,” he said.

Cervone said a long list of safeguards already exist in Florida. A judge can override a jury’s decision, or a defendant can appeal the decision in higher courts, he said.

In Tallahassee, HB 961 sponsor Rep. Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach) said he’s disappointed the bill hasn’t moved.

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Pafford said committees stop meeting in the seventh week of the legislative session. It’s currently week six.

“You get one opportunity to make a decision as to whether or not you’re going to take a life,” he said. “My goal in this bill is to make that decision unanimous for a jury, to provide more potential that somebody isn’t put to death beyond a reasonable doubt by the jury.”

Contact Kathryn Varn at kvarn@alligator.org.

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