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Senate votes to raise bar for death penalty, ‘stand your ground’ prosecutions

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The Senate voted Thursday to require unanimous jury verdicts to sentence someone to death, and to advance a measure that would require prosecutors to prove “stand your ground” immunity shouldn’t apply in criminal cases.

The death penalty bill, SB 280, which the Senate passed unanimously, was a response to a Florida Supreme Court ruling requiring that all jurors agree to impose capital punishment.

Several senators said they would vote for the bill despite misgivings about the death penalty. Sponsor Randolph Bracy, an Ocoee Democrat, was among them.

“I strongly believe that if we’re going to give someone the ultimate penalty,” he said, “we need to require a unanimous jury.”

But he added that he hopes for progress on other areas of the death penalty, including eliminating geographical and racial disparities in its application.

The Senate agreed to schedule a final vote on the stand-your-ground billCS/SB 128, by Sen. Rob Bradley.

It also followed a Supreme Court ruling, this one placing the onus for establishing immunity on the defendant. Florida’s 2005 stand-your-ground law, subsequently emulated in other states, eliminated the obligation to retreat from danger if possible before using deadly force.

“This bill corrects what I consider the error” of that “judge-made law” by the Supreme Court, Bradley said.

He said a basic premise of the criminal justice system is that the government bears the burden of proof in criminal cases.

The bill would hold prosecutors to the highest standard of evidence in making their case during preliminary immunity hearings — beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Senate rejected an amendment that would have held the state to a lower, “preponderance of evidence,” standard. That’s defined as 50 percent plus one, amendment sponsor Perry Thurston Jr., a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, said.

“Fifty-one percent is a civil burden,” Bradley responded. “Money is at stake, not someone’s liberty.”

The Senate next rejected Thurston’s suggestion of a “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard.

The senators approved a third amendment, by Longwood Republican David Simmons, to allow evidence introduced in the preliminary hearings to be used in any subsequent trial.

“One of the principles of our judicial system is accountability,” Simmons said. “If a defendant is going to put on evidence, make representations to the court, then the defendant had better be accountable for those.”

In other action, the Senate approved a bill that would spend $161 million to boost Florida’s colleges and universities.

The vote was 35-1. Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemons was the holdout.

The money for the bill (SB 2), by Bradenton Republican Bill Galvano, will have to survive the budgetary process.

The legislation, among other things, increases certain scholarship benefits, overhauls how colleges and universities measure progress and attract top professors, and mandates block tuition—a flat rate per semester—rather than by credit hour.

It has the potential to help students graduate debt-free from Florida schools, Democrat Kevin Rader said — although they may have to work while they study.

“We will pay your tuition if you do your side of the contract and do well,” Rader said.

The measure was a high priority for Senate President Joe Negron, who issued a written statement observing the occasion.

“This comprehensive legislation will boost the strength and competitiveness of our state’s higher education system as our primary economic engine to drive vibrant, sustainable economic development and growth in high-paying jobs,” Negron said.

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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