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SCOTUS’ Unanimous Death-Penalty Jury Verdict Decision Affecting Florida Cases

by Derek Gilna

The effects of the January 2016 United States Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 6161 (2016), which overturned Florida’s prior law permitting non-unanimous jury verdicts in death penalty cases, continues to reverberate through the Broward County, Florida, criminal justice system. The previous statute also permitted Florida judges, rather than a jury, to decide whether the facts of a case permit the imposition of a death penalty after a non-unanimous jury recommendation.

As a result of that decision, Florida changed its law, which now requires a unanimous agreement of the jury before a defendant can be sentenced to death. In two July 2018, Broward County, Florida, death-penalty trials, juries handed down life sentences to four capital defendants in the span of one week.

According to the website, on “July 16, a Broward County jury spared three defendants—Eloyn Ingraham, Bernard Forbes, and Andre Delancy—whom it had convicted in March of murdering a Broward sheriff’s deputy. Three days later, another Broward jury rejected the death penalty for Eric Montgomery, after having convicted him in April of the murders of his wife and stepdaughter.”

However, a fifth defendant, Peter Avsenew, who fired his attorneys before the penalty-phase of his trial in a capital case, claimed that he had “no regrets” for his actions and had been “proud of the decisions [he’d] made,” was sentenced to death.

Before the Supreme Court’s Hurst opinion, approximately three-fourths of those on Florida’s death row had been convicted by a non-unanimous jury. Since that time, only three death sentences have been handed down in the state. Florida changed its death penalty law in 2017 to put it in compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision, and two Florida Supreme Court decisions that were in accord.

Since the Hurst opinion and the change in Florida law, Broward County along with 11 other Florida counties no longer have the dubious distinction of being among the 2 percent of U.S. counties that account for over 50 percent of all death penalty verdicts.

The change has resulted in an increase in death-row exonerations in Florida, where 90 percent had come from jury verdicts in non-unanimous recommendations for capital punishment. Palm Beach County juries also have followed Broward’s example by recommending life sentences in the three first-degree murder cases held there since September 2017.

Currently, only the state of Alabama permits a judge to impose a death penalty based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendation in capital cases. 



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