New Zealand Law Society - Florida death penalty now needs unanimous jury

Florida death penalty now needs unanimous jury

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Florida's Supreme Court has decided that juries in death penalty cases must unanimously agree to recommend a death sentence.

In Hurst v Florida SC12-1947 (14 October 2016), the Florida Supreme Court has held that all the critical findings necessary before the trial court may considering imposing a sentence of death must be found unanimously by the jury.

"In capital cases in Florida, these specific findings required to be made by the jury include the existence of each aggravating factor that has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the finding that the aggravating factors are sufficient, and the finding that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating circumstances," the Court's majority opinion says.

In January 2016 in Hurst v Florida SC14-7505 (12 January 2016), the United States Supreme Court decided that portions of Florida's capital sentencing scheme were unconstitutional and violated the Sixth Amendment. Florida's legislature attempted to fix the problem by making a 10-2 vote necessary for imposition of the death penalty, instead of the simple majority previously needed.

However, Florida's Supreme Court has now found that under the Eighth Amendment the jury's recommended sentence of death must be unanimous.

Until the latest decision, Florida was one of only three US states that permitted capital defendants to be sentenced to death without all jurors unanimously recommending death. Describing Florida as "an outlier", the Florida Supreme Court notes that of the other two, Delaware's Supreme Court has recently declared the state's capital sentencing regime unconstitutional under the Sixth Amendment. Death sentences of four prisoners in the remaining state, Alabama, have also been vacated by the US Supreme Court following its January 2016 decision in Hurst.

"By requiring unanimity in a recommendation of death in order for death to be considered and imposed, Florida will achieve the important goal of bringing its capital sentencing laws into harmony with the direction of society reflected in all these states and with federal law," the Florida Supreme Court says.