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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

Florida’s death penalty law frozen for summer

Florida's death chamber
Florida's death chamber
TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court went on summer vacation Thursday and put on ice rulings resolving two of the most controversial issues to come before the court this year: the death penalty and expansion of slot machines. 

The court issued its final rulings for its 2015-16 term, which ended June 30, including a clarification of its decision overturning the state’s workers compensation law, but it left unresolved the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty and the question of whether a 2010 state gaming law allows counties to expand slot machines without legislative approval.

Both decisions could have wide-ranging ramifications, potentially leaving the state’s death penalty sentencing procedure and its gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe in limbo for several more months until the court resumes rulings at the end of August. Whatever the court rules, the decisions on the two emotionally charged issues may also provoke criticism, controversy and unleash an election-year debate.

Three of the seven justices are themselves on the November ballot. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston face up or down merit-retention votes.

They may or may not rule before then on the fate of a new death penalty law, which opponents say is unconstitutional. Florida legislators passed the law in March in response to a federal decision outlawing Florida’s death penalty scheme in January.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. Florida that the state’s death sentencing procedure was unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries. For decades, Florida jurors issued simple majority recommendations, with judges ultimately imposing the death penalty.

In response to the Hurst ruling, the Florida court stayed two executions, heard arguments in more than a dozen death penalty cases, and was widely expected to answer whether longtime Death Row inmates should be afforded new sentencing hearings. There are 338 inmates on Death Row.

The decision also forced the Legislature to rewrite its death-penalty sentencing law to require juries to unanimously vote for all reasons, known as aggravating factors, that a defendant might merit a death sentence. The new law says that the decision to impose the death sentence requires 10 of 12 jurors to agree.

The Hurst ruling evolved from a similar ruling in a 2002 case, Ring v. Arizona, which held that juries in that state should have the sole authority to decide on aggravating circumstances that made someone eligible for the death penalty. Alabama, Florida and Delaware are the only three states that do not require a unanimous jury to impose the death sentence, and Florida officials said the jury’s “advisory” role was sufficiently different to allow the court to differentiate Florida from the Arizona ruling. 

But questions remain.

Martin McClain, a lawyer who has represented more than 250 defendants condemned to death and who presented arguments before the court in June, noted that there are two people on Death Row whose juries recommended a life sentence but a judge overrode it with a death sentence.


Source: Miami Herald, July 7, 2016

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