Florida Senate rejects amendment requiring unanimous jury recommendation for death penalty

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Wednesday the Florida Senate narrowly rejected a proposal that would have required a unanimous jury recommendation in order for a death penalty sentence to be imposed; that means the bill the Senate will vote on requires a minimum of 10 out of 12 jurors to recommend the death penalty in order for an execution to be carried out.

North Florida Republican Senator Rob Bradley says that’s a compromise with the House that can pass both chambers.

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“We have an obligation, in light of the United States Supreme Court decision, to make sure that our death penalty system has direction from the legislature and it can move forward. Because, if we do not move forward, if this starts bouncing back and forth and there is no agreement, then we will end session, there will not be resolution to this issue and those victim’s families will continue to suffer because those cases will not be able to go forward because the judges simply won’t know what to do.”

The Legislature is trying to create a legal fix because in January the U.S. Supreme Court determined that Florida’s death penalty system is unconstitutional. Before a compromise was reached with the House, a Senate committee had recommended that unanimous juries be required for a death sentence. But a 10-2 compromise was reached with the House, which preferred allowing a death sentence with even more dissenting jurors. On Wednesday the full Senate narrowly rejected an amendment by Lake Worth Democratic Senator Jeff Clements to require a unanimous jury.

“So, we heard about the scare tactics. If we don’t pass this at 10-2, the death penalty will go away. I hope no one in here believes that. It’s just not true. Because the House isn’t going to let the death penalty go away.

“If we send this back over at a unanimous jury verdict, which is where it should be–which is where it should be–which is where the substantive policy committee, in here, said it should be. Unanimously, Republicans and Democrats alike. The House isn’t gonna just say ‘Well, forget about it. We’re going to let it go and the death penalty is gonna go away.’

“So, the underlying issue here is, obviously, how do we want to treat these issues as a Senate? Do we want to allow them to be decided by a couple of people or do we want to do what the Senate traditionally does? Which is to allow the Senate to have it’s voice and then we send that voice, in a group, over to the House and we start the back and forth process before we’ve had a chance to negotiate it, out of hand.”

Clements also says he’s concerned that the Senate is appeasing the House and it could become a precedent. He calls Florida an outlier because there are only three states that don’t require a unanimous jury for a death sentence.

A supporter of Clements’ amendment, Kissimmee Democrat Darren Soto, says Florida’s problematic criminal justice history makes unanimous jury recommendations important.

“Senators, when we look at levying the death penalty, there should be no doubt – there should be no doubt among any of the jurors that this is the right thing to do. There should be no doubt because we have a history, here in Florida, unfortunately, of having innocent folks be put to death or at least be on death row and find out later on that they weren’t convicted. We have a history of minorities being put in at much higher rates, on death row, than anglos. And so, in the end, I think having unanimous juries, and requiring there to be no doubt should be the policy here in Florida.”

The amendment to require a unanimous jury recommendation for a death sentence was narrowly defeated Wednesday on votes of 22-18 and 23-17. The Senate will next vote on the bill to require at least ten of twelve jurors to recommend death before a capital sentence is applied.