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Unanimous Jury Still A Sticking Point In Florida's Death Penalty Debate

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Jan. 12, 2016 turned out to be Cary Lambrix’s lucky day.

It was on that day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida's death sentencing process was unconstitutional because it gives judges rather than juries the power to condemn someone to death. As a result, Lambrix, who’s been on Death Row for 31 years for murdering two people in Glades County, had his Feb. 11, 2016 execution blocked by the Florida Supreme court.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling now has Florida lawmakers racing to fix the state's way of dispensing capital punishment.

The Florida House and Senate are agreed on two major points: A jury must unanimously agree on a whether the defendant is eligible for capital punishment in the first place and a judge cannot override a jury’s recommendation of life in prison without parole and impose a death sentence.

But the two chambers are at odds over a third critical question in the death penalty debate: Should a sentence of death require a unanimous vote by the jury?

A bill moving through the Florida House requires nine jurors to impose the death penalty. But the Senate's plan requires a unanimous verdict. Florida is one of only three states that does not demand jury unanimity in death penalty cases. (Alabama and Delaware are the other two.) In the last 40 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has told states that the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment requires what the Court calls “heightened reliability.”

“The notion is that, before we take that irrevocable step of putting someone to death, you’ve got to have the most stringent safeguards possible,” says Scott Sundby, a University of Miami law professor and author of ‘A Life And Death Decision: A Jury Weighs The Death Penalty.’ “And to suggest that a less than unanimous jury would satisfy the Eighth Amendment, I think is really courting constitutional disaster.”

Until the House and Senate reconcile on this point – and a new death penalty statute is passed -- Florida effectively has NO death penalty. Sundby says judges throughout Florida are starting to tell prosecutors who are seeking capital punishment that their cases can’t go forward.

So what happens if the Florida House and Senate can’t reach a consensus on the unanimity issue?

According to Sundby, every death sentence that would be passed again under the new statute would immediately become highly constitutionally suspect, resulting in endless appeals. “If I were a capital defense attorney, I would be salivating at the prospect,” he says.

Currently, there are nearly 400 inmates on Florida's Death Row. And until the Florida Supreme Court decides if the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is retroactive, those cases remain in limbo.