Florida Abolishes Death Sentences by Judicial OverrideMarch 09, 2016

There was a significant development in death penalty reform this week. Florida Governor Rick Scott on Monday signed into law a bill that changes Florida's death sentencing scheme. Under the new law, judges are no longer permitted to impose the death penalty after a jury recommends life imprisonment without parole. There are now only two states remaining in the country - Alabama and Delaware - that permit death sentences resulting from judicial override. And Alabama is the only state where judges frequently override jury verdicts of life to impose the death penalty.

Florida's legislature changed the law in response to a United States Supreme Court decision in January which held that Florida's capital sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment's requirement that a jury, not a judge, must find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. Because a Florida jury's recommendation was only advisory and could be overruled by the trial judge, who independently made the findings necessary to impose death, the Court held that the "jury's mere recommendation is not enough."

Alabama has the same statute as Florida's old scheme. Alabama judges have overridden jury life recommendations 101 times, and nearly 20 percent of the people currently on Alabama's death row were sentenced to death through judicial override. An Alabama trial judge ruled last week that Alabama's statute is unconstitutional in light of the recent Supreme Court decision.

Florida's new law provides that judges still make the final sentencing decision, but if the jury recommends a life sentence, the judge must impose life in prison. If the jury recommends death, the judge may impose life in prison or death.

The new law increases the number of jurors required to recommend a death sentence from seven to 10, but falls short of requiring a unanimous verdict for death. This leaves Florida as an outlier with Alabama, sharing the distinction of being the only two states that allow imposition of the death penalty based on non-unanimous verdicts.