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Florida Supreme Court: Death Penalty Juries Must Be Unanimous

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The United States is one of the few developed nations that still imposes the death penalty. But even among U.S. states, Florida's death penalty laws are behind the times. Florida was one of only three states where juries' decisions did not need to be unanimous to sentence someone to death.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state's entire death penalty system — in which judges, rather than juries, sentence people to death — was unconstitutional. 

Now Florida's own Supreme Court has cut the legs out of the state's capital punishment laws. The court ruled this morning that juries must be unanimous in imposing the death penalty on defendants. If even one juror disagrees with the ruling, a person cannot be sentenced to death.

"This decision states what is obvious to any reasonable-thinking person," says Howard Finkelstein, Broward County's outspoken public defender, who also hosts the "Help Me Howard" segment on WSVN-TV. "If you can’t convict somebody unless the ruling is unanimous, why do you think you could kill them?"

In a per curiam opinion, the judges wrote that "based on Florida’s requirement for unanimity in jury verdicts, and under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, that in order for the trial court to impose a sentence of death, the jury’s recommended sentence of death must be unanimous."

Though the court did not specifically say whether the new rules apply retroactively, the ruling is certain to upend hundreds of cases across the state and paves the way for more appeals. As of January, there were 390 inmates on death row in Florida.

The ruling is the second landmark change to stem from Hurst v. Florida, a case centered on Timothy Lee Hurst's 1998 murder of Cynthia Harrison, a manager at a Popeyes fast-food restaurant in Pensacola. Hurst was found to have fatally stabbed her multiple times with a box cutter during a robbery.

Hurst's appeal led to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in January. Today the court ruled that, in addition to the changes mandated by America's highest court, juries must be unanimous when it comes to every "aggravating factor" (a factor that increases the severity of the crime, such as lack of remorse) before putting someone to death.

Two justices dissented fully, and one judge disagreed with parts of the ruling.

Finkelstein says there are "oodles of cases" ongoing across South Florida that might need to be retried or thrown out after today's ruling. And he argues this is a good thing.

"Ultimately, the handwriting is pretty clear," he says. "The death penalty is not looked upon favorably by the law. If the Legislature insists on keeping it, they're going to have to pass a law that says juries need to be unanimous for every aggravating factor. That's going to make the whole process so expensive, and return so few death sentences, that we'll have to join the 'modern age' and get rid of it."

He adds that the United States is the only G8 nation that still sentences its own citizens to death. Other nations that still use capital punishment include Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

"This is the final knock on the door for the Legislature to hear that we need to end the death penalty," Finkelstein says. "There's no way humans can do this fairly or accurately. It's best left to God."

Here's the entire decision:

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