Florida legislators should change the jury's role - February 7, 2002

Florida legislators should change the jury's role from adviser to decisionmaker in sentencing a defendant to death, which would help to relieve the appellate system.

    Thanks to Gov. Jeb Bush, state executions are on hold for now awaiting a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that will determine whether Florida's system for imposing death sentences is constitutionally valid. Bush's move was responsible and necessary in light of the questions raised about the continued legitimacy of our death penalty procedures. This term the Supreme Court has agreed to review the case of Ring vs. Arizona that asks whether a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to trial by a jury is violated if a judge makes findings of aggravating factors and imposes a death sentence rather than leaving those judgments to a jury. The court's decision may have a direct impact on Florida since, in our system, the jury plays only an advisory role in the sentencing phase of death cases and judges make the final determination by balancing aggravating and mitigating factors.

    Bush's moratorium on executions came as a result of the Supreme Court acting to delay the scheduled execution of Linroy Bottoson, after putting on hold the execution of Amos King in January. Because it appeared the court would not allow Florida's judge-rendered executions to go forward until the Ring case was decided, Bush granted a temporary reprieve to Robert Trease who had been scheduled to die today. None of the additional 370 prisoners on Florida's death row has a current execution date. All this makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the attitude of the Legislature and state prosecutors that it's business as usual until the court rules. Continuing to use a statutory scheme after Florida has been put on notice that something may be constitutionally wrong with the way we impose death sentences is an absurd waste of state resources. Yet the fix would be so easy and sensible. The legislature is in session now; all it would have to do is alter the jury's role from adviser to decisionmaker. With lightning speed the legislature moved to fix the state's 3-strikes law once a court set it aside, lawmakers could just as easily address this situation. For those worried that juries wouldn't be as willing as elected judges to condemn defendants, in fact, the change would have very little impact on the number of death sentences handed down. In the last 6 years there have been only six cases where a judge has overridden a jury's recommendation of life in prison. A change in the law would also help relieve the congestion in our appellate courts. Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan warned about judicial gridlock caused by the disproportionate amount of time the high court spent adjudicating death cases. Cases of jury override are among the worst offenders. They can clog up the courts for years and upward of 80 percent are overturned anyway.

    Juries are perfectly capable of determining whether a murder was particularly cruel and therefore worthy of a death sentence. They have proved as much hundreds of times in this state alone. Getting rid of the jury override would make the system more fair in addition to reducing the number of death sentences appellate courts ultimately set aside. Florida's criminal justice system would only benefit if the law were changed.       (source: Editorial, St. Petersburg Times)