Florida Supreme Court Death Penalty Ruling Could Bring 'Additional Guidance' From SCOTUS

Jan 27, 2020
Originally published on January 24, 2020 6:39 pm

The Florida Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that could restart debate over capital punishment. The state’s high court says a unanimous jury is no longer needed to impose the death penalty.

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision reverses one from a few years ago which determined a person couldn’t be sentenced to death if all members of a jury didn’t agree.

“It is highly unusual. It’s not the first time something like this has happened," says Florida State University Professor and death penalty expert Mark Schlakman. 

He’s worked on the issue for years, at the state and federal level. For some background: In 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Florida law requiring only a simple majority of jurors agree to recommend the death penalty. State lawmakers then moved to a 10-2 system which the Florida Supreme Court said wasn’t good enough. Lawmakers revised the rules again in 2017 to require unanimity. But now, the state high court—made up of several new and more conservative members, has issued ANOTHER ruling: This one says unanimity is no longer required. 

“The bottom line is, this is a highly unusual scenario but there are still a lot of variables still playing out... and potentially the Florida Supreme Court will receive additional guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court," says Schlakman. 

All the back-and-forth over the death penalty has resulted in state courts having to review more than 300 prisoner cases since 2016. Schlackman says there are more than 100 others in the pipeline.

“What this recent Florida Supreme Court case, the practical effect of it, is saying the prior court incorrectly decided these measures. And [at] face value, there would be no legal cause to review those cases for purposes of potential resentencing.” 

It’s taken Florida lawmakers years to revamp the state’s death penalty rules, and with all the uncertainty, "[I] wouldn’t even try to predict what the Florida legislature will do at this point," Schlakman says. 

The Florida Supreme Court's 2016 decision, which determined a unanimous jury was necessary for the death penalty, was informed by a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case. 

*Correction: Edited to correct the spelling of Mark Scklakman's name and provide additional clarity. 

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.