If you or a loved one is facing charges that could result in a death penalty sentence in Florida, it is important that you are aware of recent changes to the state’s death penalty laws. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a law that would give the state the lowest threshold in the country for imposing the death penalty, as it would allow juries to recommend capital punishment without unanimous consent.
While this decision has been contentious and will likely face legal challenges that could go to the supreme court, it is still important that anyone facing potential death penalty charges is aware of this law and that they consult an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Keep reading to learn more about Florida’s new death penalty legislation and how it could affect ongoing cases in Broward County.
What is Florida’s New Death Penalty Law?
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed new legislation that lowers the threshold for a jury to vote on death penalty cases. Senate Bill 450 allows juries to recommend a death sentence as long as eight out of twelve jurors vote for the death penalty, giving Florida the lowest death penalty threshold in the nation. This is opposed to the previous law which required juries to come to a unanimous decision in order for a defendant to be sentenced to the death penalty. Unfortunately, there are many questions that are left unanswered with the passing of this law, as its vague wording has left some wondering whether this law applies to cases that were already progressing through the criminal justice system before the law was signed.
What Led to This Law’s Passing?
If you are like many Florida residents, you may find yourself wondering what the previous death penalty law was, and what the reason is for this new legislation. Since the passing of Florida State Senate Bill 280 in 2017, all 12 jurors on a case had to come to a unanimous agreement in order to recommend the death penalty. This law was passed to bring Florida into compliance with several Florida Supreme Court rulings in 2016 (Hurst v. State and Perry v. State).
The Hurst ruling struck down Florida’s prior capital sentencing statute that allowed judges to impose the death penalty if a majority of jurors recommended the death penalty. The former law also allowed judges to override a jury’s recommendation for life in prison. The Perry ruling struck down an amended version of the law that permitted judges to impose the death sentence if 10 or more jurors recommended capital punishment.
The State Senate was prompted to once again address Florida’s capital punishment laws because of a jury’s decision last year to sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole the gunman who murdered 17 people in the 2018 mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The jury had voted 9 to 3 in favor of the death penalty, which did not meet the unanimous vote requirement. This caused widespread backlash that prompted DeSantis to push for a reduced death penalty threshold. This movement saw bipartisan support, leading to the passing of SB 450. Supporters of the bill claim that the new law will make it easier for prosecutors to seek justice for victims and their families. However, opponents argue that this law will lead to wrongful convictions and executions, particularly since Florida has the highest rate of death row exonerations in the country.
What Does SB 450 Mean for Existing Cases?
The big question on the minds of many families in Florida is how SB 450 will affect cases that were already in progress when the legislation was signed. Will these cases be subject to the former death penalty law, or can these defendants be sentenced to death with an 8 to 4 majority? Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t clear, as this was not written into the bill’s language. A spokesperson for the State Attorney’s Office said that their position is that the newly signed death penalty legislation applies to any capital case currently pending in the criminal justice system. Additionally, Broward Circuit Court Judge Martin Fein has already ruled that the new law applies in his court to crimes committed before it was passed.
What Happens Moving Forward?
While each judge will be able to decide whether SB 450 applies to existing cases in their courtroom, this could lead to complications and potential challenges, particularly if two judges disagree. In this case, an appellate court would have to step in. Given the contentious nature of this issue and the significant impact it could have on defendants, the issue of whether SB 450 applies to existing cases, or whether the law itself is even constitutional, will likely lead to legal battles that could progress all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Florida’s Death Penalty Law Highlights The Importance of Working With An Experienced Attorney
Florida’s new death penalty law is likely to face legal challenges, particularly if judges and prosecutors try to apply it retroactively to existing cases. The fact is that sending someone to death row should be difficult in order to prevent the wrongful convictions that are all too common in Florida. Regardless of what the U.S. or Florida State Supreme Courts decide regarding SB 450, it is critical now more than ever that you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney if you or a loved one is facing criminal charges where the prosecution may seek the death penalty. SB 450 currently makes it easier for jurors to apply the death penalty, making it important that you have an attorney by your side to seek justice for you.
Feel free to contact us to learn more about SB 450 and how it could affect you or a loved one’s criminal trial.