86ºF

Bill seeks unanimous juries in death penalty cases

photo
(CNN)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Juries would have to be unanimous before recommending the death penalty for defendants in murder cases, under a bill filed Tuesday in the Florida Senate.

Under current law, a majority of a jury can recommend that a defendant receive the death penalty, with a judge ultimately deciding whether to impose the sentence.

The bill (SB 330), filed by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, for the 2016 legislative session, would establish the higher standard for death sentences.

The bill also would give direction to judges on some jury instructions in death-penalty cases. Those instructions deal with what are known as "aggravating circumstances," which are factors used to support death-penalty recommendations.

The bill, in part, would require aggravating circumstances to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and be subject to a unanimous vote.

The bill -- an identical measure (HB 157) has already been filed in the House -- would only apply to sentencing proceedings that begin after July 1, 2016.

Similar efforts have failed in prior legislative sessions. However, this year's proposal comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Oct. 13 in a case that challenges the way Florida sentences people to death.

The case stems from the 1998 murder of an Escambia County fast-food worker, and attorneys representing Death Row inmate Timothy Lee Hurst contend that Florida's unique sentencing system is unconstitutional.

The attorneys argue, in part, that a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling requires that determination of aggravating circumstances be "entrusted" to juries, not to judges.

Also, they take issue with Florida not requiring unanimous jury recommendations in death-penalty cases.

A judge sentenced Hurst to death after receiving a 7-5 jury recommendation.