- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - With executions halted and court cases caught in limbo, Florida legislators have reached an agreement to overhaul the state’s death penalty law.

Amid a vivid and passionate debate where one legislator talked about how his own sister was murdered decades ago, the Florida House overwhelmingly voted Thursday for a death penalty bill that would require that at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend execution in order for it be carried out.

The measure heads next to the Senate, which is expected to approve the bill soon and send it to Gov. Rick Scott.

“These reforms will allow us to keep the death penalty in our toolbox to punish our most violent criminals,” said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican.

The Legislature is rewriting the death penalty law after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that the current method is unconstitutional because it allows judges to reach a different decision than juries, which has only an advisory role in recommending death.

In the aftermath of that decision the Florida Supreme Court delayed the pending execution of inmate Michael Lambrix after his attorneys argued that the ruling should apply to all 389 people on Florida’s death row. Other judges across the state have also said they lack the authority to impose the death penalty in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Lambrix was sentenced for the 1983 slayings of two people he met at a bar. Prosecutors said he killed them after inviting them home for dinner.

Under the bill (HB 7101) passed by the House, a jury would have to unanimously convict someone of murder and then unanimously agree that at least one factor in the case warranted a death sentence. At least 10 people on the jury would then have to vote to recommend a death sentence. A judge could not impose a death sentence if the jury had recommended life in prison.

The decision to require a 10-2 vote of the jury in death cases was called a compromise between House and Senate Republicans. The Senate bill initially called for a unanimous jury recommendation while the House had proposed a supermajority of only 9 jurors.

The idea of requiring a unanimous jury recommendation was strongly opposed by Florida prosecutors who argued that some of the state’s most notorious murderers - including serial killer Ted Bundy - did not receive a unanimous jury recommendation.

The House approved the bill by a 93-20 vote but only after a lengthy debate where some legislators said they could not support the bill because they had a moral objection to the death penalty. They also cited how Florida has been on the leading states in the number of death row inmates who were later exonerated.

“This bill is cloaked in procedure, but soaked in a hateful policy,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat. “This bill is cloaked in process, but soaked in the cries of innocents and the exonerated.”

Among those who opposed the bill was Rep. Larry Lee, a Port St. Lucie Democrat who told legislators that his sister was murdered back in the ‘70s when she was just 24 years old.

“Right now I’m really conflicted about putting an innocent person to death because once that happens, it’s over,” Lee said. “And I can tell you, my friends, as I said, it’s 40 years and I still feel that pain…So just vote your conscience.”

But Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami attorney and former prosecutor, chided opponents and compared the numbers of those executed in Florida to the number of abortions performed each year. He said that the state had to take steps to ensure that the families of victims got justice.

“You are not voting to kill somebody, that’s the outcome of their own actions,” Trujillo said. “We’re sitting here thinking government is putting them to death. They put themselves to death.”

Reporter Joe Reedy contributed to this story.

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