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Bill on unanimous jury for death sentence clears first panel

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A bill requiring a unanimous jury recommendation for a death sentence was OK’d by a Senate panel Monday.

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

Monday’s vote comes as a staff analysis said death penalty cases in Florida “have essentially ground to a halt.”

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.

“We’re going to be back here next year talking about these aggravating factors,” said state Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat. “That said, at least we’re fixing the thing we need to fix the most.”

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

The Senate bill must next clear the Rules Committee before it can be taken up on the floor. A similar bill filed in the House (HB 527) has not yet had a hearing in committee. 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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