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Florida’s New Death Penalty Law

In the United States, some 31 states, including Florida, still use the death penalty for defendants convicted of certain crimes.  But in January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s system of imposing that penalty for unconstitutionally allowing a judge to substitute his or her own findings of fact for the jury’s conclusions, and to override the jury’s recommendation of life imprisonment or death.  (See Hurst v. Florida.)   Now Governor Rick Scott has signed into law a new death penalty sentencing statute, effective immediately, that seeks to remedy the old law’s shortcomings.

The new law’s provisions

Florida’s death penalty statute allows a death sentence to be imposed if sufficient aggravating factors exist which support it.  While the old law ran afoul of the Constitution by permitting the jury’s findings on the existence of aggravating factors to be merely advisory, the new law, HB 7101, specifies that the jury must unanimously agree in writing regarding which aggravating factors the prosecution has proved before a death sentence may be handed down.  The old statute required a simple majority of jurors to recommend death.  The new one requires 10 of 12 jurors to agree that the death penalty is warranted.  If fewer than 10 jurors support a death sentence, the result is a life sentence without parole.  Here, Florida continues to diverge from the mainstream – most other states require a unanimous jury to impose a sentence of death.

The new statute also orders a prosecutor who intends to seek the death penalty to give notice thereof to the defendant within 45 days after the arraignment.  Under the statute, the notice must contain a list of aggravating factors that the prosecution intends to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.  Examples of these aggravating factors include:

  • The defendant had been previously convicted of a felony and was under sentence of imprisonment or probation;
  • The defendant knowingly created a risk of death to many people;
  • The defendant committed the crime to avoid a lawful arrest or to escape custody;
  • The defendant committed the crime while engaged in another crime such as robbery, sexual battery, elder abuse, aggravated child abuse, or others;
  • The defendant’s crime was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel; or
  • The crime victim was a law enforcement officer engaged in her duties, a child under 12, or an elderly person.

What about outstanding death sentences?

When the Supreme Court invalidated Florida’s law, it called into question the legality of existing death sentences handed down under the unconstitutional scheme.  A Miami Herald article states that several individuals on death row have now appealed, arguing that their sentences are no longer valid since the law in effect when they were sentenced was unconstitutional.  The Lawyer General’s Office says that there are 43 inmates who are entitled to automatic reviews of their sentences following the Supreme Court’s Hurst decision.  Those 43 may receive life sentences without parole, or entirely new sentencing hearings.

Consult an Orlando criminal defense lawyer

If you are facing any kind of criminal charges, whether capital or not, your best option is to secure the aid of an experienced criminal defense lawyer.  The skilled, dedicated criminal defense lawyers of The Baez Law Firm have defended all types of criminal cases in Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and throughout the state of Florida.  Our tenacious, aggressive counselors can protect your rights and help you secure the best outcome for your case.  Contact us today for a consultation.

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