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Florida's new capital punishment law faces first test

It took jurors only 30 minutes to convict a Florida man of murdering a security guard.

It may take them a lot longer to decide what the punishment for that crime should be, however, because this is the first Miami jury to deliberate under Florida's new death-penalty laws.

Prior to the recent changes, Florida only required what was known as a "super majority" verdict to sentence someone to death. That meant that a lone holdout or even two on the jury wouldn't spare the convicted from execution as long as 10 jurors voted for death. Even that was a relatively recent change, however. The previous laws allowed a prosecutor to ask for the death penalty if only a simple majority of 7 jurors agreed. Florida now requires a unanimous verdict in order to inflict the death penalty on the convicted.

The change came about because Florida's Supreme Court declared the state's most recent sentencing laws unconstitutional. The ruling by the court opened the door for numerous convicted prisoners sitting on Florida's Death Row to seek a lesser sentence. It also changed the possibilities for any recently convicted defendants who had yet to have their final sentence imposed by the judge following the jury's recommendation of death, if the recommendation was less-than-unanimous. Those prisoners gained a right to a new sentencing hearing so that their cases will comply with the law.

Earlier in 2017, Florida's death penalty laws were found to be unconstitutional on a federal level when the nation's Supreme Court declared a law allowing judges to override jury decisions to grant leniency and impose the death penalty from the bench instead. In effect, it violated the defendant's right to a trial by jury, since the judge was taking the power out of the jury's hands.

Now, a jury may feel the full weight of that power as it deliberates in the case of the recently convicted murderer in Miami. However, the new law also gives criminal defense attorneys more opportunities to gain leniency for their clients by casting doubt on evidence, presenting mitigating circumstances or simply appealing to the basic notion that there's hope for reform as long as someone is alive. It only takes one juror now to spare the defendant's life.

For more information on criminal defense issues or to discuss your own case, contact an attorney today.

Source: Miami Herald, "Miami murder conviction to test Florida's new death-penalty law," David Ovalle, June 28, 2017

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