Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Florida defies SCOTUS considers death penalty for sexual assault of children

Less than two weeks ago, Florida executed Death Row inmate Donald Dilbeck. It was the state’s first execution in nearly four years. But under new bills filed in the Florida legislature, there could be sweeping changes to capital punishment, reported News4Jax.

First, lawmakers will consider making adults convicted of sexual battery on children under 12 a crime punishable by death. The text reads, “Such crimes destroy the innocence of a young child and violate all standards of decency held by civilized society.”

Maria DeLiberato is a practicing attorney who spent years working capital defense litigation. She’s now executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

“Child sexual battery is horrific and terrible and should be punished. Nobody is saying it shouldn’t,” DeLiberato said.

DeLiberato says this could place an additional burden on child victims in court, and more people on Death Row would be very expensive.

“That’s going to be more cost to the Department of Corrections, they won’t be able to house everybody in one, in one facility,” DeLiberato said. “Union Correctional does not have the space for that, which is where primarily all the Death Row inmates are, are housed.”

In the past, both the United States Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court ruled to ban death sentences for child rapists. In the bills that will be discussed this legislative session, the lawmakers say both the 2008 Kennedy vs. Louisiana and the 1981 Buford vs. State decisions were “....wrongly decided and an egregious infringement of the states’ power to punish the most heinous of crimes.” These new proposals, essentially, put lawmakers in conflict with higher courts.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is backing another possible change to how the death penalty operates. One that would lower the jury threshold. Under bills filed, a jury would no longer have to be unanimous in order to recommend death. That would change to an 8 to 4 vote.

DeSantis pointed to the case of Parkland school shooter, Nikolas Cruz. Three of 12 jurors voted to recommend a life sentence instead of death. Opposition to the decision was swift. DeSantis addressed the issue during a visit to Jacksonville.

“Nikolas Cruz was somebody everybody knew was guilty,” DeSantis said. “He’s entitled to process, but he admitted it. So, then they go for the penalty phase, and you kill 17 people. What other penalty can you get other than the ultimate penalty?”

DeLiberato also points to cases where the verdicts were wrong. She says Florida leads the nation in Death Row exonerations.

“We have 30 exonerations for 100 executions,” DeLiberato said. “Nearly all of those exonerations, 93% involve non-unanimous juries or cases where the judge overrode a jury, a jury’s life decision.”

In Donald Dilbeck’s case, the jury recommendation for his execution was 8 to 4.

As Florida lawmakers are set to weigh possible changes to Florida’s death penalty this legislative session, they will also consider bills filed that address compensation for wrongfully incarcerated persons. 

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