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Legislature Approves New Death Penalty Rules

Florida Department of Corrections
The gurney in Florida's death chamber.

The stark room that plays host to Florida's most severe punishment and the theater from which onlookers watch may be back in business soon.

The state Senate Thursday passed a bill finalizing procedures for sentencing someone to death in Florida. The bill, on its way to the governor’s desk, does not require a unanimous jury in handing down that sentence. Despite early signs that the Legislature might consider requiring a unanimous jury, the final language only requires 10 of 12 jurors to agree to sentence someone to death.

The state had to rewrite these sentencing rules after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the old ones in January of this year. Before, juries only recommended the sentence; the judge had the final say, which the high court found violated the 6th Amendment.

A big question in that court case—a question that the Justices did not address—was whether it is constitutional to allow a non-unanimous jury to choose a death sentence. Until now, Florida required a simple majority of jurors to agree.

Forced to rewrite the rules, the Legislature had no guidance on how the court might come down on the unanimity issue.

As long as Gov. Rick Scott does not veto the bill, Florida will remain one of just three states that do not require a unanimous decision. Challenges to that lack of unanimity are expected.

There has effectively been no death penalty in Florida since the Supreme Court ruling in January. Another big question mark remains, even after these new sentencing rules become law, and that is how—or if—current Death Row inmates are affected by the Supreme Court Ruling.

The Florida Supreme Court is expected to come out with a decision on whether that ruling applies to people who have already been sentenced.

Meanwhile, it has indefinitely stayed the executions of two men whose death warrants were signed by Gov. Scott.