Florida has formally overhauled its death penalty, approving changes meant to allow the state to resume executions while also revamping how death sentences can be handed down there in the future.
Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed the new bill into law on Monday morning, four days after state lawmakers agreed to send him the legislation.
“It is my solemn duty to uphold the laws of Florida, and my foremost concern is always for the victims and their loved ones,” Scott said in a statement. “I hope this legislation will allow families of these horrific crimes to get the closure they deserve.”
The law was updated nearly two months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s unique system of imposing death sentences, because it previously let judges make that decision, rather than juries.
After the Supreme Court ruled in January that the Florida system was unconstitutional, the death penalty in the state has ground to a halt. Two executions were stayed, and a circuit judge told prosecutors in a murder case they couldn’t seek a death sentence because “there currently exists no death penalty in the state of Florida.”
While lawmakers quickly vowed to change their law to fit the Supreme Court ruling, it was not clear what would happen to the nearly 400 people on Florida’s death row, the second-largest such population in the country.
In an era when executions and death sentences are increasingly rare, Florida is one of the outliers. The state is among the country’s most active when it comes to capital punishment and carried out the first execution of the year in the United States.
It is one of only three states to have carried out an execution in each of the last five years (along with Texas and Oklahoma), according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Under the new law, jurors must unanimously agree that the case involves at least one of what are called aggravating circumstances — things like if the crime is deemed “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” or if it occurred while someone was also carrying out a robbery, kidnapping or other serious crime.
Previously, the judges could weigh aggravating factors as well as mitigating ones (which could include if a person is emotionally disturbed or has no prior criminal record) and then, “notwithstanding the recommendation of a majority of the jury,” determine a sentence.
While the new law seeks to amend the issues raised by the justices, it does not clear up what happens to the hundreds already sentenced to death in Florida.
The state Supreme Court heard arguments in February about that very question, with the state arguing that the Hurst ruling was not retroactive and a death-row inmate’s attorneys arguing that the ruling made his sentence unconstitutional. After oral arguments, the Florida Supreme Court agreed to call off that inmate’s lethal injection indefinitely.
The rewritten law increases what it takes for a person to be sentenced to death, making it so that at least 10 jurors have to vote for a death sentence rather than the seven jurors previously needed.
This bill passed the state Senate by a margin of 35 to 5 on Thursday after passing the state House of Representatives by a vote of 93 to 20 last month.
Even as this movement was occurring in Florida, other states were also weighing capital punishment. The same day the Florida State Senate approved changing the death penalty, a judge in Alabama deemed that state’s method of handing down death sentences unconstitutional. That ruling applied to a handful of cases, and it is unclear if it will be adopted elsewhere.
An Alabama inmate had argued that his state’s system was “virtually identical” to the Florida system, but the Supreme Court rejected that and the man was executed in January.
The day before the activity in Florida and Alabama, the Utah State Senate had surprisingly advanced a bill that would abolish the death penalty there. That came less than a year after lawmakers in Utah agreed to make firing squads their official backup execution method if lethal injection is unavailable.