Miami Judge Rules Florida Death Penalty Laws Still Unconstitutional

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Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch ruled on Monday that the state’s recently amended system for sentencing people to death is unconstitutional.  The new law which allows a “less-than-unanimous” jury to impose the death penalty — violates Florida’s constitution, which requires unanimity.

“Every verdict in every criminal case in Florida requires the concurrence, not of some, not of most, but of all jurors – every single one of them,” Hirsch wrote.

Hirsch made this ruling while considering the case of Karon Gaiter, who is currently awaiting trial on first-degree murder under the new legislation which was changed by Florida lawmakers in March. The changes were an attempt to fix the state’s death penalty laws after the Supreme Court ruled in January that allowing judges to overrule a jury’s recommendation in death penalty cases was unconstitutional.=

“The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the 8-to-1 ruling in Hurst v. Florida.

Under the new system, Florida jurors must unanimously agree on the factual reasons in support of a death sentence, known as “aggravating factors.” The same law requires 10 of the 12 jurors to make the final recommendation of death, rather than a simple majority.

Judge Hirsch said, the latter part of the law fell short of the state constitution’s requirement of full unanimity.

“Arithmetically the difference between twelve and ten is slight,” he wrote. “But the question before me is not a question of arithmetic. It is a question of constitutional law. It is a question of justice.”

Florida has the second largest list of inmates on death row by state and also leads the nation in number of inmates wrongfully sentenced to death row who were later exonerated. Prior to January’s Supreme Court ruling, state law didn’t require juries to be unanimous in order to recommend a death sentence or to unanimously agree on the factors that would merit a death sentence rather than life in prison. Although it take a unanimous decision to first convict someone. Judges could ultimately override a jury’s recommendation and impose a death sentence based on their own determinations.

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