Florida overhauls death penalty in bid to resume executions

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With executions halted and the prosecution of some murder cases in limbo, the Florida Legislature overhauled the state's death penalty law Thursday in response to a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that the current sentencing law is unconstitutional.

Legislators sent to Gov. Rick Scott a bill that would require that at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend execution in order for it be carried out. Florida previously only required that a majority of jurors recommend a death sentence.

The measure includes other changes that lawmakers hope will resolve the lingering legal questions and open the door to the state resuming executions. Scott, who has overseen the most executions under a single governor since the death penalty was reinstated in Florida in 1979, plans to sign the bill into law, said his spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz.

"Today the Legislature acted swiftly and decisively to restore the death penalty in Florida," said State Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and an attorney. "There will be no further delays in justice for victims and victims' families."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that the current law is unconstitutional because it allows judges to reach a different decision than juries, which have only an advisory role in recommending death.

The state Supreme Court halted two pending executions following the ruling, and court cases across Florida were put on hold. The ruling reverberated in other states as well: On Thursday, a state court judge threw out the mechanism for imposing the death penalty in Alabama, where judges also are allowed to overrule jury recommendations.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling triggered a debate in Florida over how much the state should change its law, including whether lawmakers should require a unanimous jury recommendation in death penalty cases.

Florida is one of only a handful of states that does not require a unanimous decision by the jury. But switching to a unanimous jury recommendation was fiercely opposed by the state's prosecutors, who argued that some of the state's most notorious criminals -- including serial killer Ted Bundy -- did not receive a unanimous vote.

The decision to move from a simple majority to 10 jurors was part of a compromise reached between the Senate and House. But some legislators warned that the decision could result in the law being challenged once again. The Senate approved the bill by a 35-5 margin, while it cleared the House on a 93-20 vote.

"In Florida, we've exonerated 25 men who were once wrongly convicted of death," said State Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat and one of the "no" votes. "I just think if you're going to kill someone, you'd better be sure."

The legislation passed Thursday also requires prosecutors to spell out before a murder trial begins the reasons why a death sentence should be imposed, and requires the jury to decide unanimously if there is at least one reason, or aggravating factor, that justifies it. It also prohibits a judge from imposing the death penalty if the jury does not recommend it.

Michelle Richardson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said the changes address some, but not all of the flaws in Florida's death penalty system and questioned if the law would pass muster with the courts.

"Even after this bill is signed into law, there will still be serious constitutional problems with the death penalty in Florida, and we have to stop tinkering with the machinery of death and address them," Richardson said. "We hope that it doesn't take another ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court for legislators to find the political will to do so."

The bill sent to Scott does not apply to the 389 inmates now sitting on Florida's death row. The state Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether the U.S. Supreme Court ruling should apply to those already sentenced to death.