Capital Punishment in Florida
Violent Crimes Punishable by Death
In Florida, capital punishment (often referred to as the death penalty) is very much a present threat to those charged with violent crimes. 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.”
Murder is considered a capital felony in the following instances:
- When premeditated and designed to cause the death of any human being; or
- While committing/attempting arson, robbery, sexual battery, burglary, or another serious felony.
Is There Still a Death Penalty in Florida?
Before executions were placed under state control in 1923, they were under local jurisdiction, and therefore carried out by the county. The Supreme Court struck down the death penalty nearly 50 years later in 1972 during the Furman v. Georgia trial. In 1976, Florida became the first state to reinstate the death penalty after the Furman v. Georgia decision.
You Deserve Experienced, Aggressive Counsel
The death penalty is reserved for only the most extreme of criminal offenses. 99 people have been executed in Florida since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976. 44 were executed by electric chair and 45 by lethal injection. At Thomas & Paulk, we recognize that these are the most serious cases with complicated factors involved. If you face a violent crime charge that could potentially result in the death penalty, you need more than the average attorney. You need a powerful ally in and out of the courtroom. We are former prosecutors with over 40 years of collective legal experience. We know how to fight for our clients’ freedom and their very lives.
Do All Convictions End in Death?
Not all capital felony convictions end in death. Under Section 921.141 of the Florida Statutes, if someone is found guilty of a capital felony in Florida, the court carries out 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 must 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, they 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 in the first place, Alabama is the only state today that does not require a unanimous jury to recommend the death penalty for a capital felony conviction.
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Capital vs. Life Felonies
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 Florida. This means that Florida allows the death penalty for capital felonies.
Along with premeditated murder, causing the death of another person during the commission of any of the following crimes may classify them as capital felonies:
- Human trafficking
- Aircraft piracy
- Sexual battery
- Aggravated stalking
- Aggravated child abuse
- Home invasion robbery
- Felony act of terrorism
- Resisting a police officer
- Aggravated fleeing/eluding
- Aggravated elder abuse
- Placing/throwing a bomb
While the above list includes most capital felonies, it is not complete. For a complete list, see Section 782.04 of the Florida Statutes.
Death Penalty Sentencing
When a person is convicted of a capital felony, the court will conduct a separate sentencing proceeding to determine whether the defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. These proceedings are held before the same trial jury, if possible. If not, a special juror or jurors will be summoned to determine the issue.
"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." Ashley Gantt, at attorney in the Broward public defender's office, emailed Sweeny in response. “If it takes a unanimous jury verdict to convict someone, then it should take a unanimous jury to execute someone,” she wrote. "The state should be more cognizant about how taxpayers' money is being spent and stop wasting it by pursuing death in a voluminous amount of cases."
History of the Death Penalty in Florida
In Florida, the first person to be executed was a soldier named Benjamin Donica. On June 20, 1827, he was hung for murder.
In 1923, a bill was passed, placing Florida executions under the state's jurisdiction instead of the local jurisdiction. That's when hanging was substituted with the electric chair. The first inmate to be executed in Florida was Frank Johnson in 1924. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the death penalty was unconstitutional in Furman vs. Georgia and banned it.
This decision was later overturned in 1976, and the Florida Legislature again enacted the death penalty throughout the state. In 1979, the state resumed executions. Currently, executions are carried out through a three-legged electric chair or by lethal injection, which was approved as an alternative method in 2000. The current electric chair was built from oak in 1998 and installed at Florida State Prison in 1999.
In the 1990s, Florida botched not one but three electric chair executions. That's when the state switched to lethal injection over "Old Sparky." Interestingly, Florida has had 27 exonerations from death row, the highest number of death row exonerations of any state.
What Is It Like on Death Row?
Per the Florida Department of Corrections, the average length of stay on Death Row is 13.22 years, with an average of 14.12 years between the offense and the execution.
The daily routine for all inmates remains very similar from day to day:
- They receive meals at 5:00 am, 10:30 am, and 4:00 pm.
- All inmates are permitted to shower every other day.
- They are allowed to receive mail every day, except holidays/weekends.
- They are allowed a 13-inch television, along with snacks and radios.
- They are not permitted to smoke cigarettes or use tobacco of any kind.
- They are not permitted to have cable television or air conditioning.
- They are not allowed to socialize together in a common room.
Innocent People on Death Row
Unfortunately, innocent people have ended up on Death Row before. The Innocence Project, a national organization committed to helping the wrongfully accused be exonerated, states that 17 people have been found innocent after spending time on Death Row.
We don't ever want it to get this far. If you have been accused and are looking for an aggressive attorney to protect not only your future, but your life, you should not hesitate to contact us as soon as possible. With more than four decades of collective experience, you can place your trust in our Tampa criminal defense attorneys.
At Thomas & Paulk, we firmly believe that you should not unjustly face such an extreme penalty as death. We use our experience as former prosecutors and our unwavering commitment to our clients' rights to help people facing the most serious criminal charges.
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