Supreme Court Declares Florida’s Death Penalty Sentencing System Unconstitutional
On January 12, 2016, the United States Supreme Court declared Florida’s death sentencing system unconstitutional. However, whether the declaration of the system’s unconstitutionality affects people convicted and sentenced to death before this decision is a matter of Florida law. For the moment, it is unclear what will happen to the men and women currently awaiting execution in Florida.
The Supreme Court decision was based on the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, and the finding that the determination that a convicted person be sentenced to death should lay with a jury and not with a judge. Under established case law, the Sixth Amendment protects convicted persons in requiring a jury to make findings on every element or fact that is required in order for the death penalty to be imposed. Under Florida’s system, the jury could have recommended the death penalty or life without parole, but the final decision lay with the judge who could follow the jury’s recommendation or stray from it.
Current Florida law holds that if the death penalty is considered unconstitutional, a person convicted of a capital felony and sentenced to death will have their sentence changed to life imprisonment. However, the Supreme Court’s decision does not affect the constitutionality of the death penalty in Florida; it address the sentencing system.
Should the Florida legislature re-write the death penalty law to require the jury to make the decision on whether or not to impose the death penalty, it is not clear how the law would be written to address some of the other problems that might still exist. One such problem is the fact that even though a person’s guilt is determined by a unanimous jury, Florida currently does not require a unanimous decision from a jury in order to impose the death penalty. The death penalty can be recommended if a majority of the jurors are in favor of it. Juries are also supposed to make their decisions after listening to aggravating and mitigating factors in favor of the convicted person before recommending the death penalty. It is unlikely that the legislature will do away with the death penalty altogether.
The next step for people on death row is likely to file appeals seeking to have their sentences reconsidered in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling. The decisions on these cases are likely to be made on a case by case basis. For people pending sentencing where it is likely that they will be sentenced to death, the decision at least offers hope. The declaration that the death penalty law is unconstitutional affects the sentencing portion of a convicted person’s case, and not the underlying conviction. Therefore, this decision will not change or overturn any convictions, even as it affects the convicted person’s sentencing.
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If you are facing criminal charges in Clearwater, you need to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney with a focus on getting the best result in every case to advise you on your case. Contact the Clearwater criminal defense attorneys at Roman & Roman, P.A., for a consultation today.