The Florida Legislature should quickly adopt proposals that would require that juries unanimously agree on whether to impose a death sentence, The Constitution Project said in a statement released by the bills’ sponsors on January 12 in Tallahassee. Although it requires a unanimous jury verdict to convict a defendant, Florida is one of only a few states that allow a jury to then sentence that person to death with anything less than a unanimous finding.
“Requiring unanimity ensures more reliable verdicts in death penalty cases. Non-unanimous juries, unsurprisingly, express less confidence in the justness of their decisions,” TCP stated.
Earlier on January 12, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down elements of Florida’s capital punishment system, saying the Sixth Amendment requires “a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.” The decision in Hurst v. Florida concerned Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of the 1998 murder of a fellow employee at a Popeyes restaurant in Pensacola. He was sentenced to death in 2000.
The Florida Supreme Court granted him a resentencing trial, during which the second jury recommended a death sentence by a 7-to-5 vote. However, the jury was informed that it was up to the judge to make a final decision. The judge subsequently considered evidence not available to the jury, and concluded that Hurst should be executed.
If Florida fails at enact the unanimous jury legislation, it will expose the state’s death penalty system to further constitutional challenges, the TCP statement said.
The legislation is HB 157 by Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez and SB 330 by Sen. Thad Altman. Hurst v. Florida is case No. 14-7505.