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It just got a bit harder to sentence convicts to death in Florida (+video)

The new law is a nod to the slow but steady shift away from capital punishment nationwide – even as it maintains Florida’s status as one of a handful of states that does not require a unanimous jury decision for an execution.

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State Sen. Rob Bradley, (R), center, asks a question of Julianne Holt, a Hillsborough Public Defender, during a Florida Senate Civil and Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee meeting concerning issues with the Florida's death penalty on Jan. 13 in Tallahassee, Fla. Gov. Rick Scott on Monday signed a bill that overhauls the state's death penalty mechanism.

Scott Keeler/The Tampa Bay Times/AP/File

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Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Monday moved forward with an overhaul of the state’s death penalty law, signing a bill that lawmakers hope will clear up remaining legal questions about Florida’s capital punishment code and allow the state to resume executions.

Florida’s Legislature passed the measure after the US Supreme Court in January ruled Florida’s sentencing law unconstitutional because it allowed judges to decide whether or not to impose the death penalty in court. The bill, a result of compromise between the state Senate and House, is a nod to the slow but steady shift away from capital punishment nationwide – even as it maintains Florida’s status as one of a handful of states that does not require a unanimous jury decision for an execution.

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“Today the Legislature acted swiftly and decisively to restore the death penalty in Florida,” said state Sen. Rob Bradley (R) of Fleming Island. “There will be no further delays in justice for victims and victims' families.”

The new measure requires at least 10 out of 12 jurors to recommend the death sentence for it to be carried out, and prosecutors to articulate before a murder trial starts the reasons an execution should be ordered. The law also requires that a judge impose the death penalty only if the jury recommends it.

Though the measure preserves Florida’s firm stance for capital punishment, the high court ruling that led to the bill’s passage has already had an impact against the death penalty in other states: On Thursday, for instance, a state court judge ruled against the apparatus for imposing the death penalty in Alabama, where judges are also allowed to override jury recommendations.

Some lawmakers and advocates have expressed concern that Florida’s measure does too little to regulate the state’s mechanism for imposing the death penalty. State Sen. Jeff Clemens (D) of Lake Worth, one of those who voted against the bill, noted that the state has exonerated 25 men who had been sentenced to death.

“I just think if you're going to kill someone, you'd better be sure,” he said.

“Even after this bill is signed into law, there will still be serious constitutional problems with the death penalty in Florida, and we have to stop tinkering with the machinery of death and address them,” said Michelle Richardson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “We hope that it doesn't take another ruling from the US Supreme Court for legislators to find the political will to do so.”

Still, others have acknowledged the importance of having found a way to compromise over such a contentious issue.

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“This is a step in the right direction,” Florida state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, the Democratic leader, told The New York Times. “I would prefer a unanimous jury verdict, but you can’t always get what you want when you want it,” she said.

This report contains material from The Associated Press and Reuters. 


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