TALLAHASSEE -- The Senate approved changes Thursday to Florida's death penalty sentencing law to address the problems the U.S. Supreme Court cited in declaring it unconstitutional, sending the bill to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.
Florida has the nation's second largest Death Row population of 389 inmates. But executions have been on hold since Jan. 12 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's sentencing law as a violation of a defendant's constitutional right to trial by jury because the jury's role was advisory.
The death penalty itself was not ruled unconstitutional.
Florida's new law requires juries to unanimously vote for every reason, known as aggravating factors, to warrant a death sentence. A trial judge must sign a written order confirming those findings.
Prosecutors also must notify defendants before trial that they will seek the death penalty and to list the aggravating factors the state intends to prove.
The bill also requires at least 10 of 12 jurors in a capital case to agree on a death sentence, an issue not specifically addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in its decision in Hurst v. Florida.
The current Florida law allows juries to recommend death on a simply majority vote. The new law will put Florida in line with one other death-penalty state, Alabama. Most states require jury recommendations of a death sentence to be unanimous.
After a brief debate, the Senate passed the House bill (HB 7101) on a 35 to 5 vote. Scott has said he will review the bill when it reaches his desk.
State Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, who opposes capital punishment, was the only Republican to vote against the bill. He was joined by Democrats Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, Bill Montford of Tallahassee, Jeremy Ring of Margate and Geraldine Thompson of Orlando.
Democratic senators said they oppose the 10-2 requirement for jury recommendations and said they favored it be unanimous, which was strongly opposed by prosecutors, and s quickly rejected by the House in favor of a 9-3 proposal and the final 10-2 compromise with the Senate.
"The jury needs to make this ultimate decision, not the judges," said state Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando. "Even though I'd rather it be a unanimous jury rather than 10-2, I'm glad that this bill will make us finally not the outlier on the death penalty."
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, voted for the bill but predicted that courts will force the Legislature to increase the standard to a unanimous jury.
"I'm sure that when this issue gets back up in the Florida Supreme Court, we will get back to where we really need to be which is a unanimous verdict," Joyner said.