Bill to Change Death Penalty Requirement Moves Forward to Senate

April 1, 2023 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements, Violent Crimes

Update: Florida Enacts New Death Penalty Law

Whether states should impose the death penalty for certain criminal defendants is a debate that remains controversial across the nation. Florida is one of many states that continues to implement the death penalty.

Also referred to as ‘capital punishment,’ this type of sentencing is reserved for the most serious crimes such as murder. When a defendant is given the death penalty sentence by a jury, it means they will be sent to Florida’s ‘death row’ until it is time for their scheduled execution.

Florida’s death penalty laws have changed over the years relating to the number of votes required for implementing capital punishment. The lawwas recently updated again via Senate Bill (“SB”) 450. With Gov. Ron DeSantis signing the legislation into law, only eight of twelve jurors hearing a death penalty case will need to vote in favor of death to successfully send a defendant to death row. This is known as a “super majority” vote, and has caused significant controversy across the nation

This page will provide information on the bill history and details.

History Behind SB 450

SB 450’s passing is not the first legal change to Florida’s death penalty legislation. There has been three legislative amendments to the State’s capital sentencing since the 2016 Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida. At the time of Hurst, Florida’s capital sentencing required that the jury had a bare majority agreement for the death penalty—which would later be reviewed by the judge in a separate hearing to determine if the aggravating circumstances were sufficient to impose capital punishment. By having the judge conduct a secondary review of aggravating circumstances, a jury was only responsible for providing an “advisory sentence” of life or death. This meant that a judge had the ability to override the jury’s recommendation. In its decision, the Supreme Court found that Florida’s method violated the Sixth Amendment of ensuring the right to trial:

“The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”

The first of several amendments to Florida’s death penalty legislation came after the Hurst ruling to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision. In March 2016, the amendment took away the judge’s ability to override the jury’s recommendation for a life sentence, along with requiring the jury to unanimously find aggravating factors for seeking the death penalty. Aggravating factors are defined under Florida Statute Section 921.141 to include:

  • Defendant convicted of capital felony after previous felony conviction and while under a sentence of imprisonment, community control, or felony probation;
  • Defendant previously convicted of another capital felony or felony involving use or threat of use of violence;
  • Defendant knowingly created great risk of death to multiple people;
  • The capital felony offense was committed while the defendant was engaged, an accomplice to, in the commission of, or in attempt to commit any: robbery, sexual battery, aggravated child abuse, abuse of an elderly person or disabled adult resulting in great bodily harm or disfigurement, arson, burglary, kidnapping, aircraft piracy, or the unlawful throwing, placing, or discharging of a bomb;
  • The capital felony was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest;
  • The capital felony was committed for pecuniary gain;
  • The capital felony was committed to disrupt or hinder the lawful exercise of any governmental function or enforcement of law;
  • The capital felony was considered especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel;
  • The capital felony was a homicide that was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner without any moral or legal justification;
  • The victim of the capital felony was a law enforcement officer engaged in the performance of their duties;
  • The victim of the capital felony was an elected or appointed public official engaged in their duties if the motive for the capital felony was related to their official capacity;
  • The victim of the capital felony was a minor under the age of 12;
  • The victim of the capital felony was particularly vulnerable due to advanced age or disability, or because the defendant stood in a position of familial or custodial authority over the victim;
  • The capital felony was committed by a criminal gang member, person defined as a sexual predator, or person subject to an injunction.

A second amendment was applied to subsequent Florida Supreme Court cases that were applying the Hurst decision. The amendment held that the jury was constitutionally required to make the following key findings:

  1. Any existing aggravating factors that have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt;
  2. The aggravating factors were sufficient to justify the imposing of capital punishment; and
  3. The aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating circumstances.

In Perry v. State, the 2016 legislation was struck down due to its lack of requiring a unanimous jury recommendation before a trial judge could impose the death penalty. This resulted in the law being amended again in March 2017 to require a unanimous jury recommendation.

The death penalty sentencing in Florida has once again been updated after the Florida Supreme Court overruled its precedent for jury unanimity in January 2023. In April 2023, Florida legislators passed SB 450 to rescind the requirement for a unanimous jury recommendation.

SB 450

The Senate Rules Committee held a meeting in March 2023 to discuss potential bills changing Florida’s requirements for the death penalty.

The proposed bill, SB 450, was introduced in early 2023, aiming to change the requirement for capital punishment from unanimous to a majority vote of eight out of twelve jurors. The bill has been referred to as “the most aggressive of all 50 states.”

SB 450 was sponsored by District 11 Senator Blaise Ingoglia, who claimed the state should move away from unanimity since just one “protest juror” could prevent a death penalty sentence. The topic of the death penalty arose in Florida lawmakers after Nikolas Cruz was sentenced to life in prison instead of the death penalty for the 2018 Parkland High School massacre.

“I believe unanimity is a very, very high bar—too high of a bar,” Ingoglia said to the Rules Committee.

When Gov. Ron DeSantis was voted into office in 2019, he announced his plan to create a majority vote rather than unanimity. Then in 2020, the Florida Supreme Court reversed its initial decision, stating that a unanimous jury was not needed—despite its remaining as the law. This helped the legislators in favor of SB 450 push it forward, ultimately resulting in its passing on April 20, 2023

Titled the “Death Penalty” bill, SB 450 states that it would only require a specific number of jurors to provide a ‘majority vote’ on sentencing a person to the death penalty.

Florida Statute Section 921.141(c) is now amended to state the following:

“If at least eight jurors determine that the defendant should be sentenced to death, the jury’s recommendation to the court must be a sentence of death. If fewer than eight jurors determine that the defendant should be sentenced to death, the jury’s recommendation to the court must be a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.”

It is important to note that the jury is still required to determine that the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had an aggravating factor in the offense. Without the jury unanimously finding at least one aggravating factor, the defendant is ineligible for a sentence of death.

Further, in cases where at least eight jurors recommend the death sentence for the defendant, the court has the option to either accept the consideration or impose life in prison without parole. So, while the judge may have the final sentencing call, the option for the death sentence can only be considered after at least eight jurors unanimously find one aggravating factor beyond reasonable doubt.

Criminal Charges That Can Result in the Death Penalty in Florida

To issue the death penalty as a punishment implies that the defendant has committed the harshest of offenses. This is typically referred to as a “capital felony.” The following is a list of criminal offenses in Florida which could result in receiving the death penalty:

In addition to SB 450’s passing, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed another legislation during 2023 that may add more criminal offenses to the list of those who have the option of pursuing capital punishment.

House Bill (“HB”) 1297 amends Florida Statute Section 794.011 to make sexual battery or attempts to commit sexual battery upon a minor under 12 a capital felony. At minimum, those convicted of sexual battery against a child will face life in prison without parole. But the convicted person could also be sentenced to death if a jury decides so. The bill was passed and signed on May 1, 2023.

It is worth noting that the Florida Supreme Court decision in Buford v. State held that, “a sentence of death is grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment for the crime of sexual assault and therefore forbidden by the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment.” Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in the 2008 Kennedy v. Louisiana case that their “independent judgement” found the death penalty as disproportionate punishment for child rape.

The majority ruling in Kennedy stated, “As it relates to crimes against individuals, though, the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim’s life was not taken.”

Previous holdings from the Florida and United States Supreme Court have sparked intense debate as to whether HB 1297 is considered constitutional, however. Despite this, HB 1297 went into effect on October 1, 2023.

To get charged with a capital felony is extremely serious. If you or someone you know has been charged with a capital felony, it is in your best interest to speak with a defense attorney as soon as possible.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

It is important to stay up to date with the newly proposed bills regarding Florida’s capital punishment. With two new strict pieces of Florida legislation passed, it means that more defendants could be sentenced to death. If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime that may be considered a capital felony, you should immediately seek out legal guidance. An experienced Tallahassee criminal defense lawyer can help by reviewing the details of your case, build a strong defense, and protect your rights throughout the process.

At Pumphrey Law Firm, our attorneys understand the stress that a person is under when facing criminal allegations. We want to alleviate the burden by taking charge of your case and working towards earning your freedom. Don Pumphrey has represented clients across the state of Florida for various offenses. Our team will fight vigorously for you and your case. Contact us today for a free consultation at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message on our website.

Written by Karissa Key

Page Updated on October 24, 2023

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