Much has been written about the legality of the death penalty in Florida in the last month between the recent execution of Oscar Bolin, a well-known killer in the Tampa Bay area, and the United States Supreme Court ultimately deeming the current death penalty procedure unconstitutional as applied in Florida four days later. While the death penalty debate certainly has significant opponents and proponents on both sides, nearly everyone agrees that if any state is going to engage in the death penalty, it must do so with fair, proper procedures.
It is critical to determine why the United States Supreme Court struck the previous procedure used in Florida to begin intelligently discussing this issue. The previous procedure applied in Florida required the jury to make a recommendation as to whether to apply the death penalty, then the Judge ultimately made the final decision. Of course, the Judge could follow the jury’s advisory opinion or totally disregard it. While one hopes that judges would follow or support a jury’s decision the majority of the time, this discretion is the sole reason the Supreme Court struck the procedure down.
The Supreme Court’s reasoning was that in light of the Court’s prior decisions in Apprendi and Ring, any decision that is used to enhance a defendant’s sentence must be decided by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, not a judge unless a defendant knowingly and voluntarily waives that right. In Apprendi, the Supreme Court struck down a New Jersey state court decision, where a trial judge determined that the defendant’s motive for a shooting was the race of the victim resulting in a sentencing enhancement based on the motivation of the defendant’s shooting. Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000) Ultimately, the Supreme Court as highlighted above determined that only a jury can make that sort of finding resulting in a sentencing enhancement applying a beyond a reasonable doubt standard, as opposed to the judge in Apprendi, who applied a standard of preponderance of the evidence. Id. The Supreme Court in Ring applied the same reasoning from Apprendi to a jury finding of aggravating factors for the imposition of the death penalty. Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002) The Court ultimately overturned an Arizona state court death sentence because the judge found the aggravating factors, rather than a jury. Id.
This raises the final issue – how can Florida amend its procedures and maintain a constitutional procedure for administering the death penalty. Our primary recommendation is that the jury make all those aggravating and mitigating findings beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt and then make a determination as to whether the death penalty is appropriate for the defendant. This would result in the procedure being compliant with Ring and Apprendi as outlined above. The obvious implication would be that it would place significantly more stress and hardship on juries.
It is critical to note though as this article is written on January 29, 2016, there is currently no constitutionally approved death penalty procedure in Florida. Recently, Judge Andrews out of the Sixth Judicial Circuit in Pinellas County recently struck the State Attorney’s Office Notice of Intent to Seek Death Penalty in the recent case of Steven Dykes, who was accused of killing his three (3) month old daughter. This will likely be changed in the coming months, please keep checking out our website for updates on the death penalty.
If you or someone you know has questions concerning the Death Penalty in Florida, contact the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Hackworth Law. We offer free consultations in the majority of cases. We offer three convenient ways to contact our staff and attorneys. First, we have folks standing by 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to answer your calls. Secondly, you can use our free, confidential chat box available in the lower, right hand corner of the box. Lastly, you can always use the free case evaluation tab in the upper right hand corner of our website. We appreciate your time and attention in checking out our website.