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Lawmakers commit to fixing death penalty after court decision

@MichaelAuslen and @ByKristenMClark

Florida lawmakers are prioritizing a fix to Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedures after the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a state law giving judges the final say on capital sentencing.

House Criminal Justice chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said his committee will take on a bill to address the Supreme Court’s problems.

“Either that or we abolish the death penalty,” he said. “Those are our two options.”

The court’s ruling says that a jury must impose a death sentence. Right now, judges make that decision based on the jury’s recommendation, a procedure unique to Florida.

The justices handed down their decision just as the House and Senate were convening for the 2016 legislative session.

“First and foremost, the Supreme Court has impeccable timing,” Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island said. “Secondly, obviously I’m not aware of everything that was put out in the ruling, but we will certainly have our judiciary team look at it.”

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, is the sponsor of a bill that would reform the state’s death penalty more broadly. His proposal would require jurors to unanimously find that there are aggravating circumstances in a case, which would warrant a death sentence. Right now, it only takes a simple majority — seven of 12 jurors.

“It's a great day for justice here in Florida,” Altman said after the court’s ruling Tuesday. “We're going to fix a problem that many of us felt was a serious problem and not really properly and fairly administering the ultimate penalty: death.”

Altman found out about the ruling at 10:15 a.m., when his staff sent him a text while he was on the Senate floor. He said he will meet with Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, to try to speed up the process behind his bill in hopes of getting the death penalty back in action faster.

Not everyone in the Legislature is on board, however.

“I felt that Florida's death penalty was very constitutional because it was a just award for a crime that was committed that caused the death of someone else,” said Senate Criminal Justice chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker. “Do I support Sen. Altman's idea? Yes, I support his idea, but it's not a major priority of mine, because that's the penalty that those folks received for causing the death of someone else.”