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Florida Legislators Promise To Keep Death Penalty, Fix Law

State Archives of Florida

Saying it's time to put the "death penalty" debate to rest, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature began taking its first steps Wednesday to find a way to preserve executions in the state.

State senators spent hours with prosecutors, former judges, and defenders to come up with a way to respond to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. The nation's highest court earlier this month found that Florida's death penalty procedure is flawed because it allows judges - not juries - to decide death sentences.

Since then, judges and prosecutors across the state are delaying death penalty cases because of the uncertain legal situation. Attorneys for Michael Lambrix, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection Feb. 11, will go before the Florida Supreme Court next week to ask that justices block the execution because of the ruling.

Sen. Greg Evers, the Milton Republican in charge of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, vowed that in the next few weeks legislators would pass a bill to preserve the death penalty. But he conceded that legislation will likely call for major changes - including changing the state law that now requires only a simple majority of jurors to recommend that the judge impose the death penalty.

"We will keep the death penalty in Florida," Evers said. "It will change in a way that we feel will be more constitutional."

Most states with the death penalty require a unanimous decision from a jury. Several experts told legislators Florida's death penalty laws will remain at risk of being struck down by the courts if they don't do the same. They also pointed out that in other criminal cases a unanimous decision is required for a conviction.

But Brad King, the state attorney for Florida's 5th Judicial Circuit, said that prosecutors remain opposed to changing Florida law to require a unanimous decision in death sentences. He said it was wrong to allow one juror "with no education of the law" and no qualifications as a judge to make the final decision.

"You give them absolute control over what that sentence is going to be," King said.

While prosecutors and other attorneys made suggestions to legislators, top officials in the office of Attorney General Pam Bondi declined to make any recommendations. Bondi's office is responsible for handling death penalty appeals.

The overhaul of Florida's death penalty system was prompted by the case of Timothy Lee Hurst. Hurst was convicted of the 1998 murder of his manager at a Popeye's restaurant in Pensacola. A jury divided 7-5 in favor of death, but the judge imposed the sentence. The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the state's sentencing procedure was flawed.

Florida has 390 inmates on death row. State officials have argued that the court decision should apply only to those whose initial appeals are not yet exhausted. But one state senator pointed out Wednesday that a state law passed during the '70s said all inmates needed to be resentenced if the death penalty were ever declared unconstitutional.

Lawyers for Lambrix have already asked the state Supreme Court whether that law would apply now given the U.S. Supreme Court decision.