Law doesn’t require unanimous jury for death sentence gas 47 cents


But in a Pinellas County jury room on Nov. 10, 2011, some could not agree that the murders deserved the death penalty. One woman cried, remembers juror Quentin Davis. He asked the rest to find out why, and remembers one man saying he didn’t care, that it wouldn’t change his mind.

Some didn’t want to share their thoughts, says juror Phyllis McMahon. "They either weren’t talking about it, or would hint maybe life in prison was okay, or they weren’t saying at all. You could tell by body language, by silence, by facial expression."

This is the only state in America that allows such split juries to recommend death. And it matters. In 2012, almost two-thirds of the defendants sent to Florida’s death row were ushered there even after some of the jurors believed they should be spared.

So state lawmakers convened a four-day special session to discuss a new mechanism. Maybe it would be an automatic death penalty trigger every time a jury found someone guilty of certain crimes; maybe a three-judge panel would pass the sentence.

The trial would be split into two phases, verdict and penalty. The jury would have to find guilt unanimously in the first deliberation, but in the second, could recommend death by a majority vote. A judge would make the final decision, with the power to agree or disagree with the jury. To this day, that override exists, with judges charged to give "great weight" to juror votes.

Yet out of 13 states, Florida had the highest percentage of recommendations reached in less than an hour and the lowest percentage of recommendations reached in more than three hours. It had the lowest percentage of deliberations in which jurors asked to review testimony or transcripts, and the highest percentage of jurors who said their sentence was decided in one vote.

He noticed that the trash in the passenger’s seat of the car had not been disturbed, "coffee cups and things like this," Reedy said. "If there had been two people in the car, that would have been stepped on. That was the deciding factor that there was one person involved."

When Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, first proposed a bill to require a unanimous jury more than a year ago, he did so based on personal feeling: "If you’re going to find somebody guilty of a crime and it must be unanimous, it’s only logical that the sentencing portion of the trial be unanimous as well. … We must value life as a society."

But in a legislative committee hearing last week, he said he came to learn that unanimity wasn’t just a good idea, it was a staple of justice, deeply seeded in common law for hundreds of years and accepted as a standard in almost every state where the death penalty is allowed.

Florida prosecutors all the way up to Attorney General Pam Bondi oppose a change. Pensacola-based State Attorney William Eddins, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, spoke out against the bill at a hearing last week, citing some common counterpoints:

• Ted Bundy and Aileen Wuornos, two of the most notorious serial killers in Florida history, were sentenced to death after non-unanimous jury recommendations. "If this law passes, those cases would have been life sentences," he said. "Only 20 percent of the death penalty recommendations in Florida are unanimous. So if you change this law … it seems to me that you’re eliminating 80 percent of the death sentences in Florida."

In 2001, a state commission convened to try to figure out ways to decrease the workload of the Florida Supreme Court. One thing they considered was requiring unanimity, or at least a super majority, to decrease the number of cases judges would have to review.

In their argument against requiring unanimity, representatives of the Attorney General‘s Office and the Florida Prosecuting Attorney’s Association gave the exact opposite of the current argument. According to a staff analysis, they said the number of death sentences would not decrease, because juries that believed it was an appropriate sentence would reach a required vote.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe opposes changing the law. He says he would have supported a unanimous requirement if it had been that way all along, but is concerned about what changing the law would do to cases that have already been decided. What would that do to victims’ families?

"When you’re selecting a jury, you might leave somebody on the jury who you felt was particularly weak on the death penalty, but thought they might be strong on the facts, because you knew you only had to have a majority vote," he said. A unanimous requirement, he said, would make him want to weed out those weak on the death penalty.

"That was the bad part,” she said. "It was so fresh in my mind, the mother begging not to kill her son. … I just could not say kill him. That was just not in my vocabulary at that moment. I wish we would have had more time, and then I probably would have said it."

A requirement for unanimity would have heated things up, he said. "That answer wouldn’t have flown for me. You’re worried about your conscience here? … I don’t think we would’ve left that room until we had just exhausted ourselves in trying to turn those other three people around."

"I believe it should stay like it is, because it gives a person like me the opportunity that they can still give him the death penalty and some people have a clear conscience," she said. "I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think they need to change it. Why do they want to change it?"