"Should a split jury be able to recommend death penalty?" is the first of two articles on Florida capital juries in this Tuesday's Tampa Tribune. It's by Jose Patino Girona.
When Dontae Morris's trial begins this morning, a jury will listen to the evidence and decide whether he is guilty of shooting to death Tampa police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab in 2010. A guilty verdict will require a unanimous vote of all 12 jurors.
If Morris is convicted, the same jurors will decide whether to recommend Morris be given the harshest penalty the state can mete out: death.
That vote won't have to be unanimous. Nor would it have to be nearly unanimous. Florida law requires only a simple majority, meaning a 7-5 vote could send Morris to Death Row.
Florida and Alabama are the only two states in the country that don't require a unanimous jury to recommend or decide the sentencing phase in a death penalty case.
Some legislators are trying to change that, though they face an uphill battle.
State Sen. Thad Altman, a Republican whose district covers Brevard County and parts of Indian River County, has introduced a bill requiring a unanimous jury vote to recommend the death penalty in a capital punishment case.
Altman introduced the bill in the Senate for the 2013 legislative session. It died in committee in both chambers and never got close to reaching the floor of either the House or Senate. Last month, he introduced the bill again in the Senate.
"In Florida death penalty cases, judges determine fate," by Elaine Silvestrini is the second Tribune news report on capital juries.
Unlike most other states with capital punishment, Florida juries don’t have the last word in trials when it comes to capital punishment.
Instead, jurors in this state render what are called advisory decisions over whether certain convicted murderers should be sentenced to death. Judges are instructed to give jury recommendations great weight, but judges – not juries –ultimately decide what punishment to impose.
Only two other states with the death penalty – Alabama and Delaware –permit judges to override jury decisions.
Historically, judges in Florida have overridden jury recommendations for both life and death sentences, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Between 1972 and early 1992, Florida trial judges imposed death sentences in 134 cases where the jury had recommended life, and overrode 51 death recommendations to impose life, Dieter said.
But Professor Stephen Harper, who supervises the death penalty clinic at Florida International University Law School, said no judge in Florida has overturned a jury’s recommendation for a life sentence since 1999 as a result of a state Supreme Court decision that severely limited judges’ ability to do so. That ruling declared, “In order to sustain a sentence of death following a jury recommendation of life, the facts suggesting a sentence of death should be so clear and convincing that virtually no reasonable person could differ.”
The state Legislature tried in 1995 to overturn that restriction, known as the Tedder standard, but Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed the bill, according to the Michigan State Law Review.
Judges have, however, imposed life sentences when juries recommended death.
This happened at least 21 times in Florida between 1999 and 2011, according to data in the Michigan State Law Review cited by Harper.