Lawmakers in Florida voted on Thursday to revamp the state’s death penalty statute, a move that came nearly two months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down its current capital punishment statute as unconstitutional.
This bill, if signed into law by the governor, would end debate that has swirled this year in one of the country’s most active death-penalty states. The uncertainty has delayed two scheduled executions in the state, and it was unclear what the impact the Supreme Court ruling would have on the nearly 400 inmates on Florida’s death row, the second-largest in the country.
Meanwhile, a judge in Alabama also ruled that her state’s capital sentencing setup was unconstitutional, citing the same Supreme Court ruling that struck down Florida’s death penalty.
The Supreme Court said in January that Florida’s unusual system of imposing death sentences is unconstitutional because the state allows judges, rather than juries, to make that call. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for an 8-to-1 majority in that case, said that Florida’s sentencing practices should rely “on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s factfinding.”
Florida lawmakers vowed after the opinion came down that they would fix the state’s system to let them resume executions.
A new bill that passed the Florida state Senate on Thursday would require at least 10 jurors to recommend a death sentence and scraps the current language saying that judges, “notwithstanding the recommendation of a majority of the jury,” can determine the final sentence.
The bill passed the state Senate by a margin of 35-5; last month, it passed the state House of Representatives by a vote of 93-20.
It headed to Gov. Rick Scott (R), who plans to sign the bill, according to his office.
In Alabama, a judge said Thursday that the way death sentences are handled in there — allowing judges to override jury recommendations — is unconstitutional.
The ruling in Alabama applied only to the four death row inmates in cases Judge Tracie Todd was hearing, she told Reuters on Thursday, so it was unclear if that ruling would adopted elsewhere in the state.
But it shows the continuing impact that the Supreme Court’s ruling on Florida’s death penalty is having this year. An Alabama death row inmate’s unsuccessfully sought to have his execution halted because of what his attorneys called its similarities to the Florida system that was struck down. The Supreme Court rejected the arguments and he was executed in January.
This news comes a day after Utah lawmakers, in a surprising move, advanced a bill that would abolish capital punishment there. Florida, unlike Utah, frequently relies on the death penalty. The state carried out the first execution this year in the United States, putting Oscar Bolin Jr. to death for killing two women.
An execution scheduled in February was delayed by the Florida Supreme Court, as was another set for later this month.
This marked the second time in as many years that Florida has halted executions due to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last year, while the justices considered a challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal-injection protocol, the Florida court paused executions because both states use similar drug combinations. Florida resumed executions after Oklahoma’s protocol was upheld.
This story has been updated with the news out of Alabama and about Scott. First published: 2:05 p.m.