Florida Capital Punishment Lawyer

Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is one of the most controversial issues in modern society. Its supporters argue that it effectively deters violent crime, while its opponents claim it violates human rights and perpetuates a cycle of violence. Moreover, significant concerns have emerged over recent years regarding wrongful convictions, racial bias, mental illness, and the increasing difficulty in obtaining lethal injection drugs.

In Florida, capital punishment is a legal sanction for serious crimes such as first-degree murder. This article will provide an overview of Florida’s death penalty law and how to choose adequate counsel if you’re facing capital punishment.

Florida’s Capital Punishment Law

Under Florida’s death penalty law, certain capital felony crimes are punishable by death. Examples of capital felonies include:

  • First-degree murder,
  • Armed kidnapping, and
  • Drug trafficking offenses involving more than 10 grams of a specified Schedule I substance.

Only a defendant convicted by a unanimous jury verdict can be sentenced to death; a jury’s non-unanimous recommendation will only result in a life sentence. Additionally, trial judges must give their reasons before they impose capital punishment based on a jury’s recommendation.

The decision to impose the death penalty depends on many factors beyond proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and obtaining a unanimous jury verdict. Death sentences often come down to the subjective judgments of Florida prosecutors, the trial jury, and the trial judge. That’s why anyone facing capital felony charges must retain qualified counsel immediately and start building a strong defense as soon as possible.

Let’s review how this legal framework came to be.

The History Of The Death Penalty In Florida and How the U.S. Supreme Court Got Involved

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The State of Florida has been executing death row inmates using the electric chair and lethal injection since 1924. Before that, counties in Florida executed people, usually by hanging.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all existing death penalty statutes were unconstitutional due to arbitrary and discriminatory application. The Florida legislature passed the state’s current death penalty statute in 1995.

In 1999, the Florida Department of Corrections installed the three-legged electric chair in the state’s execution chamber located at Florida State Prison. Electric chair executions are still performed today, but in 2000, the Florida legislature enacted legislation allowing lethal injection as an alternative means of execution.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme, ruling that it violated defendants’ constitutional rights by giving trial judges too much power. The state legislature then adopted a new sentencing law.

There have been numerous other legal challenges to Florida’s use of capital punishment over the years. Even so, Florida lawmakers have stood their ground, and the state supreme court has continually permitted trial judges to sentence defendants to death under state law.

Florida currently ranks fourth for the total number of executions by any U.S. state since 1976, after Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia. As of January 2023, Florida had 297 death row inmates. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the two youngest inmates executed in Florida were 16 years old.

Next, we’ll explore the difference between ending up on death row and being sentenced to life in a Florida state prison.

The Difference Between Being Sentenced to Capital Punishment and Life in a Florida State Prison

While both capital and life sentences are severe, they each have distinct procedural features.

To sentence someone to death in Florida, there must be a unanimous jury verdict, and the jury must unanimously recommend the death sentence to the trial judge overseeing the case. Trial judges have some discretion when deciding whether to impose a death or life sentence. Then, a death row inmate can appeal their ruling directly to the Florida Supreme Court after sentencing.

In contrast, life in prison only requires a majority vote by the jury, and judges have no discretion when it comes to sentencing; they must follow Florida statutes. Those serving time under a life sentence must exhaust all available remedies before going through the appellate court review process.

Let’s take a closer look at the process for sending a defendant to death row.

The Death Row Sentencing Process

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As we’ve mentioned, a person can only end up on death row under Florida statutes if they have been unanimously convicted of a capital felony, such as first-degree murder.

After conviction, the sentencing phase begins. Jurors may consider evidence of mitigating factors, such as the defendant’s lack of prior criminal history or mental illness and any aggravating factors related to the crime. Then, the jury must unanimously decide if the death penalty is appropriate. A judge must then approve the death sentence or sentence the defendant to life imprisonment instead.

Once sentenced, a defendant has the right to appeal the decision directly to the Florida Supreme Court and all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. A defendant can appeal their conviction based on various grounds, such as ineffective counsel or newly discovered evidence.

The appeals process can take years to complete and can ultimately lead to exoneration or commutation of the defendant’s sentence rather than execution. If a defendant exhausts their appeals and is unsuccessful, however, the State of Florida may choose to proceed with the execution.

Of course, the death penalty isn’t the only type of punishment available in Florida.

Alternatives to the Death Penalty

There are three main alternatives to the death penalty:

  • Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, or a lesser prison sentence;
  • Restorative justice programs, which allow offenders to meet with their victims, victims’ families, and community members to take responsibility for their actions and discuss how to make amends. While restorative justice isn’t applicable or appropriate in every case, it can provide closure for victims and help reduce recidivism rates among offenders; and
  • Community service, which allows offenders to perform work as a way to make amends for their crimes and contribute to society. Community service sentences have been used effectively in numerous jurisdictions across the United States and can be an effective way for courts to address criminal behavior.

Despite these viable alternatives, some defendants still receive the death sentence in Florida. Unrepresented or poorly represented defendants face much higher odds of being sentenced to death than those with experienced counsel. Thus, hiring a quality criminal defense attorney is imperative for anyone facing capital felony charges.

The Importance of Having Experienced and Relentless Counsel in Death Penalty Cases

Death penalty cases are serious and complex, which is why having a skilled criminal defense attorney with specialized knowledge is essential to defending yourself against a crime punishable by death in Florida.

A competent criminal defense lawyer will ensure your constitutional rights are being honored at each stage of the legal process. They will thoroughly investigate your case, challenge the evidence presented against you, and actively participate in the proceedings. They will also strive to help you win your case or at least achieve a reduced sentence by presenting a strong defense or negotiating a plea bargain.

The legal representation you choose can make the difference between life and death. That’s why you must hire the most seasoned and zealous advocate you can find.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Does it Typically Take for Someone to Be Executed in Florida?

Executions in Florida generally occur within several years of conviction. The length of time can vary, however, depending on:

  • The length of the appeals process, which can take decades;
  • The availability of lethal injection drugs; and
  • The length of time between scheduled executions.

Are There Any Racial Disparities in Death Penalty Sentencing in Florida?

In Florida, as in many other jurisdictions across the United States, studies have consistently shown that race plays a significant role in determining who receives the death sentence. Specifically, black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants, especially when the victim is white.

The disparity has been attributed to a variety of factors, including implicit bias on the part of judges and jurors, inadequate legal representation for minority defendants, and systemic racism within the criminal justice system at large.

While efforts have been made to address these issues through reforms such as jury selection procedures and sentencing guidelines, much work remains to be done to ensure that capital punishment is administered fairly and impartially in all cases.

Can Someone Who is Mentally Ill Be Sentenced to Death in Florida?

The U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of individuals with intellectual disabilities or those deemed insane at the time of their crime, but a person with a mental illness can still receive a death sentence in Florida under certain circumstances. The state allows for capital punishment if the defendant understands the nature and consequences of their actions and possesses rational understanding during trial proceedings.

Our Capital Punishment Attorneys Will Provide You With the Best Defense Possible

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Capital punishment in Florida has long been a controversial topic. As discussions around Florida’s capital punishment law continue, the future for those facing possible execution remains uncertain. One thing you can be certain of, however, is that if you’re facing the death penalty, you need legal representation from an experienced capital punishment lawyer.

The criminal defense attorneys at Meltzer & Bell have extensive knowledge about relevant Florida law and procedures and can guide you through every step of the process.

One of our most prolific capital punishment attorneys is Rachel Newman. Rachel has handled numerous felony cases, including capital felony cases. In 17 years at the Broward County Public Defender’s Office, she represented thousands of defendants and obtained favorable results for countless clients.

Rachel has handled numerous high-profile cases and has appeared on CourtTV and multiple news stations. She is an active member of the Broward Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She also serves as Board Secretary to Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, demonstrating her fierce dedication to achieving justice for people facing capital punishment.

If you’re interested in working with Rachel or any of our other capital punishment attorneys in Palm Beach County or elsewhere in South Florida, don’t hesitate — call Meltzer & Bell at (561) 557-8686 for a free consultation today.

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