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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 -…

Former Florida Chief Justice Says Death Penalty Process Faces Chaos

Florida's death chamber
Florida's death chamber
A former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court says the state’s death penalty process will be left in “chaos” as a result of recent court decisions involving how the process is administered.

In the past, a jury would recommend whether someone convicted of murder should be given the death penalty. The jury’s recommendation could be a simple majority. But, the final decision as to whether a person would receive the death penalty was left up to the judge.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that giving the judge the final say violated a defendant’s right to a trial by jury. The high court also took exception with a majority vote, saying the jury’s decision on the death penalty needed to be unanimous. (1)

Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature enacted a law requiring a unanimous jury decision before a person can be sentenced to death.

The rulings mean that approximately 150 inmates on Florida’s death row can now request a new sentencing hearing to determine if their death sentences will stand.

Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan says that could be a big problem.

“That’s not an easy thing to go back and dig up all of this evidence and especially to dig up all the witnesses,” Kogan told reporters during a conference call Tuesday afternoon. “We have been very, very negligent in the state of Florida in handling these types of cases.”

Kogan said there are inmates on Florida’s death row who were convicted 30 or more years ago. He says it won’t be as simple as letting a new jury read the transcripts from the old trial. He says both sides will have to put on evidence for a new jury to consider.

“You’ve got a mess and there’s no doubt about that,” said Kogan.

Juanita Perez’s son, Benjamin Hamilton, and granddaughter, Ivory, were both murdered in Brevard County in 2009. The man convicted of killing them, Justin Heyne, did not receive a unanimous decision in the sentencing phase and will likely receive a new hearing.

“The fact that this process has to begin all over again when we were promised it was over. It’s harmful to all families, even if you want it or not,” said Perez. “The only one who benefits from this is the state attorney.”

Perez said she didn’t ask for the death penalty in her son’s and granddaughter’s murders in the first place and doesn’t want to be put the process again.

(1) DPN received the following comment: "The US Supreme Court did not address the issue of unanimity at all. The requirement that the jury vote be unanimous was imposed by the Florida Supreme Court, construing long-standing Florida law as well as the Florida and United States Constitutions." - Florida Center for Capital Representation at FIU College of Law.

Source: The Capitolist, John Lucas, June 27, 2017

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