Miami Judge Rules Florida Death Penalty Laws Unconstitutional

Ol' Sparky still remains the state's auxiliary means of execution.
Ol' Sparky still remains the state's auxiliary means of execution.
Courtesy of Florida Department of Corrections

Six months after the Supreme Court ruled that Florida's previous death penalty sentencing law was unconstitutional, a Miami circuit court judge has ruled that the new law approved by the legislature and Governor Rick Scott is also unconstitutional. 

Eleventh District Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch struck the law down while considering the case of Karon Gaiter, a man who is currently awaiting trial on first-degree murder. 

The vast majority of states that still require 12 out of 12 jurors to agree on a death sentence. That wasn't the case in Florida. In fact, the jury's decision was legally considered only as an advisory recommendation for the judge. And although there weren't any cases where a judge imposed the death penalty when the jury had recommended against it, there were some instances where a judge ordered death even after only 7 of 12, a slim majority, of jurors backed it. 

In early January, the Supreme Court ruled that practice was unconstitutional in an 8-1 ruling

"The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the court's decision.

So Florida lawmakers scrambled to put together a new death penalty law. You'd think perhaps they'd go with a law that required a unanimous decision, but instead, they only required 10 out of 12 jurors to sign off on a death penalty verdict. 

Judge Hirsch believes that that still isn't constitutional. 

"Arithmetically the difference between 12 and 10 is slight," Judge Hirsch wrote, according to the Miami Herald. "But the question before me is not a question of arithmetic. It is a question of constitutional law. It is a question of justice."

Hirsch also pointed out that a unanimous decision is required to convict someone in the first place. 

It's worth noting that Florida has the second largest list of inmates on death row by state. Florida also leads the nation in number of inmates wrongfully sentenced to death row who were later exonerated. 

The ruling comes as the Supreme Court of Florida is mulling whether or not all inmates sentenced under the previous law should have their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole. 


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