In the wake of the Florida Supreme Court’s stunning recent ruling that a unanimous verdict is not needed to sentence a person to death, Miami-Dade politicians and legal experts have voiced concern.
Melba Pearson, a candidate for Miami-Dade state attorney and former deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said she was disturbed. “[It’s] the single most important decision in the criminal justice system — whether or not someone should live or die. It flies in the face of justice for the jury not to be in agreement in all aspects of the sentence,” she said.
Justice Jorge Labarga, the lone dissenting vote on the decision, argued that since execution is the “ultimate sanction,” a unanimous requirement ensures the fair and just use of the death penalty.
Stephen K. Harper, a Florida International University law professor and director of the Death Penalty Clinic, said he was shocked and disgusted by the ruling. “It was a horrific opinion in my view. I thought it was legally outrageous because they ignored the previous ruling their court made,” he said. In his view, the state Supreme Court’s reversal of a precedent was potentially dangerous because it may allow for the meaning of laws to be changed easily.
Initially, Florida law stated that a majority of a jury and at least one aggravating factor were needed to advise a judge to sentence someone to death. This law was struck down in 2016 when the state Supreme Court in Hurst v. State found it to be unconstitutional. The law was rewritten to require a unanimous jury along with at least one aggravating factor for a death sentence to be passed.
In the most recent decision, the justices found that the 2016 ruling was based on a misinterpretation of a U.S. Supreme Court case that found Florida’s death sentencing practices to be unconstitutional.