Fla. judge: Death penalty law unconstitutional

Posted at 9:19 PM, May 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-10 11:40:48-04

A Miami-Dade circuit judge declared that the state's new death penalty law is unconstitutional, saying Monday it should require a unanimous decision from the jury.

Florida had to revise its law after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 12 that it was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, not juries. When the Florida Legislature passed the new law in March, some thought that it could hold constitutional muster because it says a jury needs a unanimous vote on aggravating factors to consider someone for a death sentence but it takes only a 10-2 vote to impose it.

Judge Milton Hirsch said the new law should require all 12 jurors to agree to the death penalty.

"Every verdict in every criminal case in Florida requires the concurrence, not of some, not of most, but of all jurors - every single one of them," he said.

The ruling was in the case of Karon Gaiter, who is awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge. The ruling is limited because it applies only to Florida's 11th circuit and no other judge is bound by it.

Ed Griffith, a spokesman for Miami-Dade's state attorney, said the state would appeal.

Hirsch's decision was first reported by The Miami Herald.

Under the new law, judges can't impose the death penalty if a jury recommends a life sentence. The new law was signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott on March 7.

The Senate originally favored unanimous verdicts while the House supported a 9-3 vote before reaching a compromise.

"The Legislature was certainly forewarned as they were debating what new statute would require that there would be constitutional attacks if they didn't vote for unanimity. That is what has come to pass," said Karen Gottlieb, who is the director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University's School of Law.

Florida's Supreme Court will take up the matter of 10-2 juries next month after ordering briefs last Thursday in a case involving Larry Darnell Perry.

That was the same day the court heard oral arguments in the Timothy Lee Hurst case on whether he should receive a life sentence instead of death due to flaws with the old law. The case could have far-reaching impact as the court could rule that all 390 inmates on Florida's death row should also receive life sentences.

Florida and Alabama remain the only states that have the death penalty that do not require unanimous verdicts. Delaware also doesn't require unanimity - its 7-5 jury vote is similar to Florida's old law - but it is under review as the state Supreme Court there takes up a case next month.


Associated Press reporter Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this story.