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Legislature Sends Unanimous Jury Death Penalty Bill To Governor For Signing

Florida Department of Corrections

UPDATED 3/10/2017 11:05 a.m. - This post has been updated with the most recent Senate vote, which means the new death penalty rules have passed the Florida legislature and will be sent to the governor's desk for signature.

One final piece of the puzzle that held up the death penalty in Florida for years is almost back in place.

On Friday, the Florida legislature moved forward with legislation that would require unanimous juries in sentencing someone to death in the state.

The House had the final vote on the issue Friday and the governor is expected to sign the legislation. 

Take a look at our special Cell 1: Florida's Death Penalty In Limbo, which explores how all the changes to the death penalty over the past year have affected inmates, their families and victims' families.

The new piece of  legislation would plug the final hole in the state’s death penalty, which was ripped open in January 2016 when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the state’s law because it allowed  judges, not juries, to make the final decision in sentencing.

That prompted the 2016 Legislature to rewrite the rules, giving juries the last say in sentencing someone to death. But when it came to the proportion of the jury that was required in making that determination, it was left  short of unanimous:  10 juries was enough. In October 2016, the Florida Supreme Court struck down those amended rules,  leaving open the question: How should the capital cases already in the pipeline move forward? 

While legislators have pushed this to be one of the first issues passed of the 60-day legislative session, some of the pressure was taken off when the Florida Supreme Court weighed in yet again in February, allowing the state to move forward with cases already in the pipeline without new rules, as long as unanimous juries were maintained.

The first day of floor debate came the same day Death Row inmate Mike Lambrix, who was the next person in line to be executed when last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision came out, was denied the chance to be resentenced. He has 15 days to appeal that decision, but any success on that front is unlikely.

Both Lambrix and Mark Asay have active death warrants; the stay on Asay’s warrant was lifted on Dec. 22. What is likely to happen to that is unclear, though Gov.  Rick Scott has sent more people to the execution chamber than any other governor since LeRoy Collins left office in 1961.

This is one of the first pieces of legislation to be sent to the governor for signature into law.

As the bill sailed through the Senate, sponsor Randolph Bracy , D-Ocoee, said it is time the Legislature got this part of the death penalty right. The House rejected his proposed amendment last year, which would have required unanimity.

“I strongly believe that if we are going to give someone the ultimate penalty we need to require a unanimous jury,” said Bracy. “It speaks to who we are as Floridians that if we’re going to send someone to death, they should have a fair trial, and I believe unanimity speaks to that”

He also pointed out disparities in how the death penalty is applied, being used disproportionately in certain parts of the state. He added that  “sometimes, unfortunately, the color of your skin can determine whether you get the death penalty or not.”

He urged the Legislature to look at these issues in the future.