Death Penalty

FLORIDA STATUTES 775.082 AND 921.141 - THE DEATH SENTENCE AND CAPITAL FELONIES

Florida Statute 775.082 permits a punishment of death for a person convicted of a capital felony in Florida.  This statute also addresses what should happen in the event that the death penalty in a capital felony is held to be unconstitutional under the Florida Constitution or the United States Constitution.  Interestingly, the Florida legislature maintains a distinction here between the determination of the unconstitutionality of the death penalty itself, and the determination of the unconstitutionality of a method of execution.

The sentence of death must be the result of a penalty phase proceeding carried out according to the procedures set forth in Florida Statute 921.141.  The penalty phase proceeding is the second part of a two-part capital trial system in Florida.  The first part, called the guilt phase proceeding, results in the jury verdict (i.e. guilty or not guilty) on the capital felony charge.  If a person is found to be guilty of a capital felony, a penalty phase proceeding is subsequently conducted to determine the sentence - either life in prison or death.  The same judge and jury panel is used for both the guilt phase and penalty phase proceedings.  However, the verdict in the penalty phase differs in two important aspects.  First, whereas the guilt phase verdict must be unanimous, a sentence of death only requires the recommendation of a majority of the jury. 

In addition, the verdict rendered by the jury in the penalty phase proceeding is advisory - which means that the judge presiding over the penalty phase proceeding ultimately determines the sentence, and can "override" the jury's recommendation if he/she so determines.  BUT - it is rare that a penalty phase judge enters a sentence which is different than the jury's recommendation.  Both the penalty phase judge and jury are required by statute to base their sentencing determinations on the consideration of aggravating and mitigating circumstances.  Sections (5) and (6) of Florida Statute 921.141 list the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, respectively, which the judge/jury is permitted to consider when determining the sentence.  Section (7) of Florida Statute 921.141 allows the State to present victim impact evidence to the penalty phase jury.

CAPITAL DRUG/SUBSTANCE FELONIES

Under Florida Statute 893.135, a person who commits a first degree felony of trafficking, importation, or manufacturing of certain illegal or controlled substances (as defined by Florida Statute 893.03) will be held to have committed a capital felony if certain statutory requirements are satisfied.  In general, elevation to a capital felony is required if a court determines that, in committing the first degree felony, (1) a person intentionally killed an individual or otherwise caused the intentional killing of an individual, (2) a person's conduct led to a natural, though not inevitable, lethal result, or (3) a person knew that the probable result of the commission of the first degree felony would be the death of any person.

The statutory requirements for elevation differ with respect to the type of first degree felony committed (i.e. trafficking, importation, or manufacturing), so please refer to Florida Statute 893.135 itself for specifics as to these requirements.

THE FLORIDA CONSTITUTION AND THE DEATH PENALTY

Article I, Section 17 of the Florida Constitution authorizes the death penalty as a punishment for capital crimes, and permits any method of execution that is not prohibited by the United States Constitution.  Section 17 further establishes that Florida shall construe the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment found in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constituion in conformity with the decisions of the United States Supreme Court.

Article V, Section 3(b)(1) of the Florida Constitution gives the Florida Supreme Court the jurisdicition to hear appeals from final judgments of trial courts imposing the death penalty.  However, pursuant to Florida Statute 921.141(4), in all cases in which the death penalty is imposed, the judgment of conviction and sentence of death shall be subject to automatic review by the Supreme Court of Florida and disposition rendered within two years after the filing of a notice of appeal.