TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida can start executing condemned killers again now that the U.S. Supreme Court has let stand the state’s changes to its death penalty law, experts say.
But so far, Gov. Rick Scott hasn’t signed a warrant for any of the 366 prisoners on death row.
“Other than the typical motions that defendants file and exhaust prior to a death warrant being signed, both federal and state, I don’t think there’s another barrier out there to stop the governor from moving forward,” said Rep. Chris Sprowls, Palm Harbor, a former Pinellas County prosecutor and legislative leader on death penalty issues.
Scott could be ready to begin executions again soon. A spokeswoman for the governor said he had been waiting on the high court’s decision.
“Our office is currently reviewing the next steps in the process” of selecting a case and signing a death warrant, Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said. Scott has signed death warrants for 23 prisoners, more than any other Florida governor since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to review a state Supreme Court ruling from October requiring juries to be unanimous in issuing a death sentence, a move that essentially upheld the state court’s decision. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January 2016 struck down Florida’s capital punishment law, which had allowed prisoners to be sentenced by a simple majority vote of a jury.
In March, Scott signed a new law quickly passed by the Legislature that requires unanimous juries.
“The issues that were causing the most pronounced constitutional concern . have been remedied,” said FSU Law School professor Wayne Logan.
Scott has often stated he takes signing death warrants seriously as a “solemn duty” but hasn’t explained in detail his process for choosing which warrants to sign.
The death penalty debate became a hot-button political issue when Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced in March she wouldn’t seek capital punishment under any circumstances, citing racial disparities, delays, costs and frequent instances of exoneration. She never stated her stance on the death penalty during her 2016 election campaign and would later say she didn’t do so because the death penalty wasn’t in force during that time.
In response, Scott removed 23 potential capital murder cases from Ayala and gave them to 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King. Ayala has sued over that decision, and the case remains before the state Supreme Court.
Sprowls, who along with several other House Republicans called on Scott to suspend Ayala from office, said it is important to show the death penalty is back in force in Florida.
“When you’re talking about victims of heinous crimes and their families who are awaiting trial, or awaiting sentencing or awaiting resentencing – certainly bringing a level of closure to them and allowing those cases to move forward is a paramount concern of government,” Sprowls said.
Florida’s last execution was on Jan. 7, 2016. The condemned man was Oscar Ray Bolin, convicted of murdering three young women in the Tampa area in 1986.
Five days later, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 8-1 decision striking down the state’s death penalty.
The lengthy limbo of capital punishment in the state held up several murder trials, and the effects are still rippling through the judicial system.
It also led to numerous appeals from death row inmates, several of whom were sentenced by split juries and have since had their sentences reduced to life in prison.
The Florida Supreme Court’s October decision stated that prisoners sentenced to death by split juries after 2002 should be resentenced. Before that ruling, there were more than 380 prisoners on death row. Now there are 366, and appeals continue to work through the courts.
Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, sponsored the Senate version of the bill requiring unanimous juries. He said he did so to make sentencing fairer.
Even so, he said he would like to see capital punishment abolished altogether.
“Regardless of the outcome of State Attorney Ayala’s case to get those death penalty cases back, I don’t think it’ll change the minds of legislators, but I do think that it’s sparking a conversation among people in general as to their beliefs on the death penalty,” Bracy said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.