Home to the nation’s second-largest death row, Florida may be on a path to executing fewer prisoners as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Tuesday that requires juries, not judges, to impose the death penalty, experts tell the Tampa Bay Times. “Whatever the legislature does” in response to the court’s ruling, “there are bound to be some cases where a jury doesn’t reach the same decision that a judge would have,” said Ronald Tabak, chairman of the Death Penalty Committee of the American Bar Association. “And most likely, there will be fewer death sentences.” The court overturned Florida’s unusual capital sentencing system, finding it unconstitutional because juries play an advisory role in recommending life or death, and are not required to give a factual basis for their opinion. By law, judges make the ultimate decision after giving “great weight” to jurors’ recommendations.
The court’s ruling has thrown the state’s death penalty process into chaos and tasked Florida lawmakers with rewriting the capital punishment scheme. Legal experts said that regardless of the precise language that emerges, there’s little doubt Florida will have to transfer power from judges to juries, shouldering ordinary citizens with a grave duty. “That’ll just up the degree to which the jurors will feel some sense of responsibility for their decision,” said Mona Lynch, a criminology professor at the University of California at Irvine. Lynch, who has studied how juries reach decisions in capital cases, said that in states like Florida and Alabama where juries give advisory verdicts, there tends to be a “diffusion of responsibility.” Aware that a judge might override them, jurors often feel less pressure, making it easier for them to sentence the inmate in front of them to death.