The Florida Senate Rules Committee voted today to advance SB 450, Death Penalty (Ingoglia). This bill would return Florida to its outlier state of allowing nonunanimous juries to recommend a death sentence.
The highlight of my career was when Clemente Aguirre, a man I represented for over ten years during his wrongful incarceration, became Florida’s 28th death row exoneree. He spent 14 years incarcerated in Florida, with more than ten of them on Florida’s death row for a crime that DNA proves he did not commit. He was sentenced to death by 7-5 and 9-3 jury votes.
SB 450 contains nearly identical language to the death penalty statute that was declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 2016. In an 8-1 decision in Hurst v. Florida, the Court struck down Florida’s scheme because the “Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”
While SB 450 is a reaction to the understandable outrage that ensued after the Parkland trial, reviving an unconstitutional statute is not the solution. Because of the constitutional infirmities in this bill, any sentence imposed under this new legislation is vulnerable to the same challenges that occurred after Hurst, when Florida courts were faced with numerous death penalty cases that resulted in 100 new penalty phases for death row inmates. More than 60 of those resentencing proceedings are still pending.
Since this bill was filed, the State has executed Donald Dillbeck, who had an 8-4 jury vote. Governor DeSantis subsequently set the execution for Louis Gaskin for April 12th, who was also sentenced to death by an 8-4 vote. I urge the legislature not to be lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that courts may not be stepping in to stop these executions based on the non-unanimous jury vote. There are strict standards in death penalty appeals that do now allow courts to revisit issues that have been previously raised and rejected. Both Mr. Dillbeck and Mr. Gaskin were denied relief under Hurst because their cases were final before 2002.
If one of the primary justifications for the death penalty is to provide solace and finality to victims, instituting this new unconstitutional statute almost certainly does the opposite.
FADP Executive Director