After hearing emotional and graphic testimony from families of murder victims, Florida House members stood firm Wednesday on a new death penalty law that does not require juries to be unanimous in recommending death sentences.
The House Judiciary Committee passed a bill (HB 7101) that makes several changes to the law to bring the state into compliance with last month's U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated the state's sentencing law because judges, not juries, make the final decisions to warrant the death penalty. That narrowly-crafted decision, Hurst vs. Florida, did not address jury unanimity, but the issue is dominating political debate in Tallahassee.
The 18-member committee, voting along party lines, rejected an amendment by Democratic Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami that would have required future juries in capital cases to be unanimous in recommending death. That requirement is in a Senate death penalty bill (SB 7068), putting the two chambers at odds in the major criminal justice issue of the 2016 session. Both houses must agree on a new law and Gov. Rick Scott must sign it for executions to resume.
Thirty-two states allow capital punishment but Florida is one of only three states that does not require a jury to be unanimous in recommending death. Alabama requires at least 10 jurors to agree and Delaware has a law similar to Florida's, but it's now under review by the Delaware Supreme Court.
Florida prosecutors, led by State Attorney Brad King in Ocala, are lobbying for a law that requires no more than nine of 12 jurors to agree on death sentence recommendation. King's testimony focuses on crime victims, and he cited a case that he personally tried: the rape and murder in 2005 of a nine-year-old Homosassa girl, Jessica Lunsford, by John Couey.
Couey was sentenced to death by a jury in Miami-Dade on a 10 to 2 vote.
"Now if John Couey is not one of the worst of the worst, I couldn't tell you who is," King testified.
Lawmakers also heard from Emily Cope, who was a teenager in Volusia County in 2009 when her father, Keith Cope, was hog-tied to a bed so tightly that he lost limbs and later died in a hospital. A jury recommended that Cope's roommate be sentenced to death on a 10-2 vote. Emily Cope is now a victim advocate for the Edgewater Police Department.
Polk County Public Defender Rex Dimmig, speaking on behalf of public defenders statewide, predicted a flood of lawsuits by inmates if the Legislature does not act now to require jury recommendations of death to be unanimous.
"Take us out of the situation of being an outlier state," Dimmig pleaded with lawmakers. "Address it now."
The vote was 17-1 with every lawmaker voting for the bill except for Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, who said she opposes capital punishment.
Nine people were sentenced to death in Florida in 2015. The state has 389 inmates on death row, some of whom have languished there for 30 years or more. The Florida Supreme Court has indefinitely postponed the execution of Michael Lambrix, a convicted double murderer who had been scheduled to die on Thursday.
Referring to the compelling words by speakers on both sides, Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, said: "You could hear a pin drop, and that is seldom the case in Tallahassee."