Florida Supreme Court Finalizing Changes to Death Penalty Jury Instructions

After Governor Rick Scott changed the regulations regarding the death penalty last March, the Supreme Court of Florida was faced with the task of amending both its process for capital cases and its death penalty jury instructions. The amendments include a form that guides jurors through the process of making a sentencing decision in capital cases.

Until the Court can finalize the changes, some cases involving defendants facing capital charges who had yet to go to trial, or who already received their sentencing, are on temporary hold. The state granted re-sentencing for some death row inmates in light of these changes, as well.

The court issued its proposed amendment to the jury instructions and called for public comment. The open comment period ended on May 29, and the court is currently finalizing the revised jury instructions. While there have been five requests for oral arguments, the Court has scheduled none as of yet.

How are the jury instructions for capital cases changing?

Governor Scott’s new regulations for Florida death penalty cases include two notable changes: 1) There must be a unanimous jury decision to sentence a defendant with the death penalty, and 2) It is now up to the jury — not the judge — to decide whether the case involves qualifying aggravating factors that justify sentencing the defendant to death.

Those changes necessitated a revision to the instructions the court provides to the jury in criminal cases. So in April 2017, the Supreme Court of Florida issued Opinion No. SC17-583, which highlights the court’s proposed amendments to the Standard Criminal Jury Instructions in Capital Cases that courts should use in the interim until the changes are finalized.

The proposed revisions include two amendments and two new sections of instructions:

  • Amendments: Sections 7.11 (Preliminary Instructions in Penalty Proceedings—Capital Cases) and 7.12 (Dialogue for Polling the Jury (Death Penalty Case)
  • New jury instructions: Sections 3.12(e) (Jury Verdict Form— Death Penalty) and 7.11(a) (Final Instructions in Penalty Proceedings—Capital Cases)

How will these changes affect the process for jurors?

For starters, the new jury instructions are shorter and more straightforward. The court now places a lot more precedence on the jury’s decisions than it used to, as well. Another change is that the jury will now hear instructions on a witness’s credibility in the final jury instructions rather than before opening statements.

They also include the definitions of a few important terms, which the instructions revisit in the final instructions.

The amendments to the jury instructions include a form that walks the jurors through the process of making determinations in capital cases. You can see the form in the appendix of the court’s opinion.

The form begins by asking the jury to mark “YES” or “NO” in answer to whether the State established beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of an aggravating factor. Aggravating factors, pursuant to Florida Statute § 921.141(6) could be a number of things. Examples include prior capital felonies on the defendant’s record, committing the crime for financial gain, or committing a felony that was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.

If jury members check “YES,” they must then indicate if they find the aggravating factor(s) are sufficient to warrant a possible sentence of death. If the jury members check “NO,” the defendant is not eligible for the death penalty and will instead receive a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

How might these changes affect defendants’ cases?

Theoretically, Governor Scott’s death penalty regulatory changes and the subsequent changes to the jury instructions may make it more difficult for defendants to receive the death sentence in Florida. The State must now convince all 12 jurors that the defendant’s crimes warrant capital punishment before the courts can impose the death penalty. (Before these changes, Florida only required that seven out of 12 jurors recommend the death penalty.)

These changes certainly shift the criminal defense attorneys’ focus in capital cases. Our first course of action, of course, is to submit evidence prior to trial to get the case dismissed. Where this is not possible, our defense attorneys then try to prove as many mitigating factors to the jury as possible. We make as many objections to violations throughout the legal process and file the record for appeal. These things can make all the difference when the jury weighs the facts, forms its opinions, and reaches its final decision.

For legal representation in St. Petersburg or to speak to our criminal defense team about your case, contact Goldman Wetzel at 727-828-3900.