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December 28, 2010

Interesting review of judicial imposition and review of death recommendations in Florida

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting article from a local Florida paper discussing the imposition and review of death sentences in the Sunshine State.  The piece it headlined "Judge faced with difficult decision; A jury recommended death for Emilia Carr, but the vote's slim margin could make a difference on appeal," and here are excerpts:

Earlier this month, by a 7-5 vote, a jury recommended that Emilia Carr be sentenced to death. If Circuit Judge Willard Pope follows that recommendation, statistics suggest the narrow vote would help Carr persuade the Florida Supreme Court to reduce her sentence to life in prison.

Between 1972 and Dec. 31, 2000, there were 112 Florida death penalty cases in which juries voted 12-0 to recommend death. The state's high court affirmed the sentences 64 percent of the time.

During the same time period there were 117 death penalty cases in which the jury recommendation for death was 7-5. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed 47 percent of them. The percentage of affirmed death penalties gradually increased with each additional vote (8-4, 9-3 and so on) in favor of death.

“There is an inverse correlation: the more votes for death, the lower the chance it [the death sentence] is going to be reversed by the state Supreme Court,” said Michael L. Radelet, who provided the statistics. He's a criminologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who monitors Florida death penalty cases.

Carr's court-appointed defense attorney plans to note this trend during her pre-sentencing pleas to the judge. “It's not a 6-6, but it's pretty close, so we [plan to] persuade the court that one vote should not weigh so significantly with him,” Candace Hawthorne said after the jury returned its recommendation.

By law, Pope must give the jury's recommendation “great weight.” But he is not bound by it, and Radelet's research has turned up several cases of Florida judges imposing life sentences despite death recommendations....

Florida is one of only two states among the 35 that impose the death penalty in which jury unanimity on sentencing is not required. While uncommon, trial judges' “overrides” of a jury's recommendation — either sentencing a defendant to death over a life recommendation or vice versa — are not unheard of.

Radelet has identified 36 cases in Florida between 1992 and Dec. 16, 2010 in which a trial judge overrode a jury's death recommendation and instead imposed life in prison. He said the overrides were directly correlated to the number of votes favoring death.

In other words: The death-to-life overrides occurred most frequently (13 times) in cases where a jury had recommended death 7-5. In only two cases were death-to-life overrides issued when the jury recommendation for death was a unanimous 12-0....

According to Radelet's research, the most common reasons for the death-to-life judicial overrides included mental illness of the defendant; questions about premeditation; proportionality of the death sentence; and evidence of an abusive childhood.

December 28, 2010 at 04:20 PM | Permalink

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