What Is Florida’s Death Penalty Law?

What is the difference between capital felonies and life felonies? The punishment for life felonies is life in prison without the chance of parole, while the punishment for capital felonies is death. Another term for capital felonies is “capital punishment,” which is legal in the State of Florida.

In Florida, the first man to be executed was Benjamin Donica in 1827, who was hung for murder. In 1923, a bill was passed, placing Florida executions under the state’s jurisdiction instead of having them under local jurisdiction. That’s when hanging was substituted with the electric chair. More humane? That’s questionable.

In the 1990s, Florida botched not one, but three electric chair executions and that’s when the state switched to lethal injection over “Old Sparky.” Interestingly, Florida has had 27 exonerations from death row, which is notable because it has the highest number of death row exonerations than any other state.

“Until 2016, Florida was one of three states that permitted trial judges to impose the death penalty based upon a jury’s non-unanimous recommendation for death. In Hurst v. State, the Florida Supreme Court rules that the practice violated the state’s constitution, and the Florida legislature, in March 2017, adopted a new sentencing law requiring a unanimous jury recommendation for death before the judge could impose a death sentence,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In a July 2018 article, Dan Sweeney, a contact reporter for the South Florida Sun Sentinel said that Florida was having a “bit of a challenge sending people to death.” In fact, the state has had several problems, he said.

“If it takes a unanimous jury verdict to convict someone, then it should take a unanimous jury to execute someone,” Ashley Gantt, an attorney in the Broward public defender’s office told Mr. Sweeney in an email. “The state should be more cognizant about how taxpayers’ money is being spent and stop wasting it by pursing death in a voluminous amount of cases.”

What is a Capital Felony in Florida?

In a nutshell, capital felonies have to do with the worst kinds of murders. Murder under Section 782.04 of the Florida Statutes is defined as the “unlawful killing of a human being.”

When a murder is premeditated, and designed to cause death of any human being and it was committed while the offender was perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate any of the following crimes, it is a capital felony, which is punishable by death:

  • Arson,
  • Carjacking,
  • Trafficking,
  • Murder,
  • Human trafficking,
  • Aircraft piracy,
  • Sexual battery,
  • Robberyor burglary,
  • Aggravated stalking,
  • Aggravated child abuse,
  • A home invasion robbery,
  • A felony act of terrorism,
  • Resisting a police officer with violence,
  • An aggravated case of fleeing or eluding involving serious, if not fatal injuries,
  • Aggravated abuse of a disabled individual or elderly person, and
  • The unlawful placing, throwing, or discharging of a bomb or other destructive device.

While the above list includes most capital felonies, it is not complete. There are more offenses that can be prosecuted as capital felonies in Florida.

Do All Convictions End in Death?

Not all capital felony convictions end in death. Under Section 921.141 of the Florida Statutes, whenever someone is found guilty of a capital felony in Florida, the court carries out a a separate sentencing proceeding. The purpose of this proceeding is to decide whether the defendant will receive the death penalty or life in prison under Section. 775.082 of the Florida Statutes.

The sentencing proceeding is conducted by the judge in front of a trial jury as soon as possible. Under the recent changes to Florida’s death penalty law, all 12 jurors have to unanimously agree that the defendant should be sentenced to death. If just one juror disagrees with the death penalty, the defendant will not be sentenced to death. Instead, he or she will receive life in prison without the possibility of parole.

With the passing of Florida’s new law requiring a unanimous vote to sentence someone to death, and out of all the states that have the death penalty, the only state today that does not require a unanimous jury to recommend death is Alabama.