Jacksonville, FL - While the Florida Supreme Court and Florida legislature work to figure out changes to the state’s death penalty sentencing process, Duval prosecutors don’t tend to ease any plans to seek the punishment itself.
“We’re here to follow a law, that’s what we are, and the law right now states that in appropriate cases the death penalty should be sought, and we do seek it,” says Fourth Circuit Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled Florida’s death penalty sentencing process is unconstitutional. The current process has a jury recommend a sentence- which does not have to be a unanimous recommendation- and the judge takes that under advisement, but ultimately issues the final sentence. The Supreme Court takes issue with the fact that the judge can find certain aggravating factors were reasons for giving the death penalty, even if the jury did not- in the Court’s opinion,that means the judge can impose a sentence harsher than what the jury recommended.
The ruling did not, however, say anything about the death penalty itself being unconstitutional, so while the new process has to be worked out, de la Rionda says their work continues.
“Florida is going to have to change somewhat the scheme we’ve got right now, but in the long run, I still think we will get as many death penalty cases as we have handled, and we will get as many death penalty recommendations- or now sentences- as we have,” he says.
Duval County currently has 60 inmates on death row, according to Florida Department of Corrections records. Clay County has 7 and Nassau County does not have any. In the Seventh Judicial Circuit, St. Johns County has 5 death row inmates. Baker County, in the Eight Circuit, does not have any.
De la Rionda says- in his interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling- the cases which have already gone through appeal will not be affected by this ruling. This includes the Jacksonville case of Mark Asay, whose death warrant was just signed by the Governor last week.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi issued a statement saying there will need to be a case-by-case evaluation of existing death sentences. Even if a case is ordered to go through sentencing again, the verdict- which is determined in the trial phase, not the penalty phase- will likely not be affected.
The Seventh Judicial Circuit did not want to comment on the ruling at this time, only saying that they’re reviewing the Supreme Court ruling. The Eight Circuit has not returned our requests for comment.
Bondi said in the statement that she will be working with lawmakers this session to make changes to the sentencing procedure to bring the state in to compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling.