At the outset, death is different.
In State v. Dixon, 283 So. 2d 1 (Fla. 1973), the Supreme Court of Florida upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty statute. The court found that “death is unique punishment in its finality and in its total rejection of the possibility of rehabilitation.” As such, the court confirmed that it was the intent of the legislature to reserve application of the death penalty “only to the most aggravated and least mitigated of the most serious crime.” Accordingly, the Florida Legislature put into place a special process with safeguards so that the death penalty is applied properly after conviction of a capital crime.
Multi-Step Process Between Conviction and Imposition of the Death Penalty
A separate multi-step process exists between conviction and the imposition of the death penalty. After a defendant is found guilty of a capital offense subject to the death penalty, the first step is a second trial to determine whether death will be imposed. At this trial, the jury hears evidence concerning aggravators, circumstances that weigh toward death, and mitigators, which weigh in favor of mercy.
The defense and prosecution can present new evidence supporting these circumstances. The jury then makes a sentencing recommendation based on these aggravators and mitigators. Florida, unlike many other states, does not require that the death recommendation be unanimous. A simple majority, a single person, is all it takes for a recommendation of death.
The Fifteen Aggravating Circumstances As Defined by Florida Statute
The aggravating circumstances that can apply in any given first degree murder case are limited to those set forth in Florida Statute § 921.141(5). These circumstances are limited to fifteen possible aggravators:
1. § 921.141(5)(a): The capital felony was committed by a person previously convicted of a felony and under sentence of imprisonment or placed in community control or felony probation (“while serving a sentence”).
2. § 921.141(5)(b): The defendant was previously convicted of another capital felony or of a felony involving the use or threat of violence to the person (“prior violent felony conviction”).
3. § 921.141(5)(c): The defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons (“great risk of death”).
4. § 921.141(5)(d): The capital felony was committed while the defendant was engaged, or was an accomplice, in the commission of, or an attempt to commit, or flight after committing or attempting to commit , any robbery; sexual battery; aggravated child abuse; abuse of an elderly person or disabled adult resulting in great bodily harm, permanent disfigurement; arson; burglary; kidnapping; aircraft piracy; or unlawful throwing, placing , or discharging of a destructive device or bomb (“during course of a felony”).
5. § 921.141(5)(e): The capital felony was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest or affecting an escape from custody (“escape or avoiding arrest”).
6. § 921.141(5)(f): The capital felony was committed for pecuniary gain (“pecuniary gain”).
7. § 921.141(5)(g): The capital felony was committed to disrupt or hinder the lawful exercise of any governmental function or the enforcement of laws (“disrupting government function”).
8. § 921.141(5)(h): The capital felony was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel (“HAC”).
9. § 921.141(5)(i): The capital felony was a homicide and was committed in cold, calculated and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification (“CCP”).
10. § 921.141(5)(j): The victim of the capital felony was a law enforcement officer engaged in the performance of his or her official duties (“LEO victim”).
11. § 921.141(5)(k): The victim of the capital felony was an elected or appointed public official engaged in the performance of his or her official duties if the motive for the capital felony was related, in whole or in part, to the victim’s official capacity (“government official performing duties”).
12. § 921.141(5)(l): The victim of the capital felony was a person less than 12 years of age (“child under 12”).
13. § 921.141(5)(m): The victim of the capital felony was particularly vulnerable due to advanced age or disability, or because the defendant stood in a position of familial or custodial authority over the victim (“advanced age or disability”).
14. § 921.141(5)(n):The capital felony was committed by a criminal street gang member, as defined in § 874.03 (“street gang member”).
15. § 921.141(5)(o):The capital felony was committed by a person designated as a sexual predator pursuant to § 775.21 or a person previously designated as a sexual predator who had the sexual predator designation removed (“sexual predator”).
Next Friday – an in-depth look at Death in Florida continues with the mitigating factors that can apply in any first degree murder case under Florida law.