- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Feb. 27

The Ocala Star-Banner on unanimous juries in death sentences:

Florida’s death penalty sentencing law is on track to get significantly better.

Just not good enough.

When the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 12 struck down Florida’s capital sentencing system because it gives juries too little weight, the Legislature was forced to amend the law in order for executions to resume in the state. Although the court’s ruling in Hurst v. Florida didn’t address the issue, bills in the House and Senate both seek to change the number of jurors required to agree on a death sentence.

It’s a long overdue overhaul. Florida is one of just three states, along with Alabama and Delaware, that do not require a jury be unanimous on recommending the death penalty. However, Florida stands alone in allowing a simple majority of jurors (seven) to issue a death sentence.

Florida’s unique position is both constitutionally and morally suspect, as it leaves so much room for doubt when handing down the ultimate penalty. Indeed, the Florida Supreme Court has cited legal precedent and the state’s “outlier status” in urging the Legislature to re-examine the state’s capital sentencing statute.

Hurst added urgency to that move. A bill in the Florida Senate would change the law to require jurors be unanimous in both finding a defendant eligible for the death penalty and in recommending the sentence be imposed. The original version of a similar bill filed in the House diverged from the Senate measure on the key issue of unanimity by requiring a supermajority of nine jurors to recommend a death sentence.

Tuesday, however, the House bill was amended to bump that supermajority up to 10 jurors, putting Florida’s law on par with Alabama’s. Some legal and political observers believe that is setting the stage for a compromise between the two chambers, and that the Senate bill eventually will abandon jury unanimity and adopt the House supermajority of 10.

Although that’s an improvement to the current system, it still allows sentencing to proceed despite doubt. There must be the highest level of certainty attainable when sentencing a convict to death, for a mistake cannot be undone if an innocent person is executed.

To be sure, adopting unanimity would lead to fewer death sentences. A study by the Harvard Law School found that requiring jury unanimity in Florida, Alabama and Delaware would have caused death sentences over the last five years to drop from 117 to 26 - a decrease of 77 percent. Florida alone would have imposed 70 percent fewer death verdicts.

The goal, however, should not be to put as many convicts on death row as possible. It should be to ensure the innocent are not wrongly convicted. To that end, the results of a recent Tampa Bay Times review of more than 450 death penalty cases dating back decades are chilling.

The Times found that prisoners who were sentenced to death based on non-unanimous jury recommendations were far more likely to have their cases overturned on direct appeal, or to be ultimately acquitted. Of the 20 people who have been exonerated and for whom sentencing information is available, 15 were sent to death row by a divided jury.

Florida leads the nation in death row exonerations since 1976. That statistic alone demands a thorough review of the state’s judicial system.

The Legislature, however, can install a powerful check against miscarriages of justice by requiring jury unanimity on death sentences, just as 29 other states have.

Online:

http://www.ocala.com/

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Feb. 27

The Daytona Beach News-Journal on a bill mandating state police investigations of all officer-involved deaths:

In retrospect, it probably was unrealistic to believe the Florida Legislature would pass a bill this year mandating state police investigations of all officer-involved deaths - especially when key legislators aren’t even aware there’s a problem.

Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, is sponsoring SB 810, which would require that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate any time an officer’s use of force results in someone’s death. It’s a needed response to issues raised last year in The News-Journal’s series “Shots Fired,” which revealed that more than two-thirds of law agencies in the state investigate their own officers’ shootings of civilians (throughout Volusia County and Flagler counties, though, the FDLE is called in to investigate all such shootings). There aren’t even standards for compiling data.

Before “Shots Fired” attempted to quantify such incidents, no one had any idea how often police in Florida used deadly force.

Thompson’s bill (and its companion in the House, HB 933, sponsored by Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park) would give a more complete picture of the circumstances surrounding police use of force. Having an outside agency review all officer-involved deaths also would bolster public confidence in the integrity of the investigations.

Unfortunately, both the Senate and House bills are still stuck in committees awaiting hearings, and the clock is ticking: The Legislature will adjourn March 11. It’s highly unlikely the measures would make it to floor votes before the final gavel sounds.

The FDLE has been a primary obstacle to progress. The agency’s analysis projected that the bill would cost $1.6 million annually to pay for the additional 13 investigators needed, and that the investigative process would take even longer than it already often does in these cases.

The money, though, represents only 0.53 percent of the FDLE’s total budget and 1.3 percent of what it spends for investigations and forensics. That’s a modest and worthwhile investment to ensure officer-involved deaths are properly vetted and individuals are held accountable for their actions.

These roadblocks would be mere speed bumps if there were sufficient political will to drive the bills. The lack of urgency - and ignorance surrounding the issue - was glaringly illustrated by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Milton, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee. When he told The News-Journal’s Frank Fernandez that he was not sure whether the bill would be placed on the committee’s agenda, he also indicated he didn’t see a pressing need for the bill - he believed that the FDLE already kept track of officer-involved shootings.

Fernandez had to inform Evers that neither the FDLE nor any other agency in the state keeps track of officer-involved shootings.

If the committee chair is unaware of the situation, how many other lawmakers are in the dark? And of those, how many care?

Clearly, improving the system must begin with educating the decision-makers about its deficiencies. That can’t be accomplished in two weeks; it will require months of groundwork. If enough have their eyes opened, they can push back against the FDLE’s bureaucratic resistance and get legislation passed next year.

Online:

http://www.news-journalonline.com/

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Feb. 25

The Miami Herald on mandatory-minimum sentences:

This year, criminal-justice reform has been high on the to-do list for state lawmakers. And it’s about time.

We commend Gov. Rick Scott for signing a bill that will bring a touch of humanity and common sense to the state’s courtrooms: The new law repeals Florida’s “10-20-Life” law - the guideline that now sets mandatory-minimum sentences for crimes involving guns.

On Wednesday, Gov. Scott signed Senate Bill 228 repealing the too-rigid sentencing mandate. It’s welcome recognition that the law removed judicial discretion in sentencing both hardcore offenders and young, more-naive offenders who might deserve a second chance.

A tip of the hat, too, goes to bill sponsors House Reps. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, and Neil Combee, R-Polk; and Sens. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville, and Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park.

This is the first real reversal of the state’s tough-on-crime initiatives of the late 1990s, coming on the heels of several tourist murders and a booming homicide rate.

With a stroke of the governor’s pen, here’s what changes: The new law gives judges across the state flexibility when sentencing people convicted of gun-involved crimes. Under the 10-20-Life law, judges’ hands were tied and they had to hand down a 10-year sentence if someone displayed a gun and a 20-year sentence if someone fired a gun - including cases where the weapon was fired as a warning and not at an individual - and 25 years or more is someone were wounded. There were no exceptions; now there are.

“This is a major victory for common-sense sentencing reform in Florida,” Greg Newburn, state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums said on Thursday.

It’s also a path away from arbitrary sentences that overcrowd our prisons. And it allows judges to be judges by giving them discretion to consider mitigating circumstances, not just a blank decision that may ruin a life - and there’s no denying that many of those lives have been black lives.

The bill takes effect July 1, but it does not affect anyone currently incarcerated. But the sad cases of some of those imprisoned under this law led to its repeal.

Since 10-20-Life was enacted, more than 15,000 people have been sentenced under the law. Many bad people have been taken off the streets. But, “Unintended consequences are inherent to mandatory minimums,” Mr. Newburn said. “No one anticipated 10-20-Life would be used to put citizens in prison for 20 years for warning shots, but that’s exactly what happened.”

The 2008 case of Orville Lee Wollard III, of Davenport, is often cited by those who pushed for repeal. Mr. Wollard is serving 20 years in a state prison for firing a warning shot inside his home to scare away his teenage daughter’s unwelcome 17-year-old boyfriend; the shot was meant to scare the teen, and no one was hurt. But the use of the gun triggered the state’s mandatory-minimum sentencing. Mr. Wollard was convicted of aggravated assault with a firearm, and a judge had no choice but to throw the book at him.

The governor rejected Mr. Wollard’s request for clemency last year and offered no reason for the denial. But he did later follow the recommendation of his Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection, which called on the Legislature to fix the unintended results of Florida’s 10-20-Life law.

Gov. Scott has helped give Floridians a fairer criminal-justice system.

Online:

http://www.miamiherald.com/

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