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Unanimous jury bill unanimously OK’d in House

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A bill requiring a unanimous jury recommendation for a death sentence was unanimously cleared by a House panel Wednesday.

The Criminal Justice Subcommittee OK’d the bill (HB 527) by Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican.

But the approval was after several public comments that the legislation didn’t go far enough to truly overhaul the state’s capital punishment system.

In 2016, the Legislature passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill requiring at least 10 of the 12 members of a jury to recommend the death penalty.

But the Florida Supreme Court in October ruled 5-2 that jury recommendations must be unanimous for capital punishment to be imposed. Significantly, the court said the law can’t be applied to pending prosecutions.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the Hurst v. Florida case, had previously ruled that the Constitution “requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” according to a legislative staff analysis.

In December, however, the state Supreme Court issued two decisions that opened the possibility for more than 200 Florida death row inmates to be resentenced.

When asked about other constitutional issues, Sprowls – a former deputy prosecutor for the 6th Judicial Circuit in Pasco and Pinellas counties – said lawmakers are simply fixing the immediate problem.

“The court had an opportunity to review the death penalty statute,” Sprowls later told reporters. “They could have addressed other issues. They did not. They specifically zoned in on this one issue. That is the issue we are fixing.”

As of Jan. 15, “state attorneys reported a total of 313 pending death penalty cases of which 66 were ready for trial,” a staff analysis said.

“Because there is currently no constitutional sentencing procedure in place due to the lack of jury unanimity in a final recommendation for death, cases in which the state is seeking the death penalty have essentially ground to a halt.”

Rex Dimmig, the Public Defender for the 10th Judicial Circuit of Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties, told lawmakers they were addressing only the “constitutional crisis du jour.”

When it comes to the death penalty, “Florida has been an outlier, and will continue to be an outlier,” he said.

A Senate companion (SB 280) also was cleared unanimously last week by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. It’s sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy of Ocoee, the panel’s chair.

The 2017 Legislative Session begins March 7.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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