U.S. Supreme Court Finds that Florida Jury Must Be Unanimous in Recommendation of the Death Penalty

In Florida, there has been significant upheaval regarding the constitutionality of the death penalty for capital crimes. Florida is one of the leading states in the number of executions carried out within the state and has been the target of considerable debate regarding the requirements that need to be present before the death penalty may be invoked. If you have been arrested for committing a felony that may lead to the death penalty, it is crucial that you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can review the facts of your case and help you attain the fairest outcome. Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a confidential consultation.

Constitutional Protections Against the Application of the Death Penalty

First and foremost, the death penalty is only permitted for capital crimes. These crimes include the most heinous within our system, the most well-known being intentional homicide or first-degree murder. It is within the United States Constitution and upheld in Florida’s Constitution that men and women in a democratic society will be free from cruel and unusual punishment, especially where the sentence is disproportionate to the seriousness of the crime. For example, it would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment, the constitutional amendment that protects men and women from cruel and unusual punishment, if a person who stole a candy bar from a convenience store was to receive the death penalty. There are constitutional barriers to permitting any court, judge, or jury from giving a capital punishment for a non-capital felony or misdemeanor.

There are many states in recent years that have taken to finding unconstitutional the death penalty for any crime. In the Florida criminal system, one case has moved through the Florida court systems and now the federal system, regarding Florida’s criminal processes and threshold requirements to permit the application of the death penalty.

The Role of Aggravating Factors and Mitigating Circumstances in Applying the Death Penalty

At the sentencing phase in Florida, aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances are evaluated to determine whether the death penalty is proportionate with the crime and the facts of the case under review. If there are an overwhelming number of aggravating factors against the criminal defendant, and/or very few, unconvincing mitigating circumstances, the criminal defendant may be facing the death penalty. In the past, in Florida’s criminal justice system, the jury was the trier of fact regarding the weight of each aggravating factor and mitigating circumstance; the judge would then make a recommendation as to whether the death penalty should be applied. There was no requirement that the jury be unanimous when determining the weight that each aggravating factor or mitigating circumstance had on the recommendation.

The United States Supreme Court Review: January 2016

The United States Supreme Court found in January 2016 that the system in place was not constitutional; more specifically, it was unconstitutional for the jury to make an advisory finding on the merits by majority vote, with the judge making the ultimate decision as to whether the death penalty would be applied, without reviewing the jury’s reasoning behind the advisory finding.

Though Florida passed a new law in the interim to better implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in January 2016, requiring that juries must make their death penalty by a 10-2 vote rather than majority vote, the Supreme Court of the United States reviewed the rule, and overturned it.

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling: October 2016

According to the new U.S. Supreme Court ruling as of October 14, 2016, the Court held that juries, before recommending the death penalty, must be unanimous as to the necessity and weight of each aggravating factor and mitigating circumstance, when determining whether the death penalty should be applied. Additionally, the jury’s ultimate recommendation for the death penalty also has to be unanimous.

Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a confidential consultation.