By Kristen M. Clark
Although Florida saw a drop in 2015 in both the number of death-row inmates executed and the number of criminals sentenced to death, findings from a national nonprofit research organization show the Sunshine State continues to be an "outlier" in its administration of capital punishment.
The year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center, released Wednesday, highlights Florida and a handful of other states for bucking national trends that reflect growing disfavor among Americans toward the death penalty.
Nationwide in 2015, executions dropped to their lowest level in 24 years, and the number of new death sentences imposed fell sharply from already historic lows, the center found.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have outlawed the death penalty, while another 12 haven't executed anyone in nine years or longer, the center said.
"We're seeing that the death penalty as a whole is being imposed much less frequently, and when it's being imposed, it's being imposed by an increasingly isolated group of states and counties," said Robert Dunham, the center's executive director. "When we talk about the death penalty being a product of outlier practices or geographically isolated, Florida is a perfect example."
2 people were executed in Florida in 2015, down from eight last year.
In Florida, both executions and new death sentences were down in 2015, but the state still joins a few others in being responsible for the most use of the death penalty, the center found.
According to the report, 93 percent of the 28 executions this year came from four states: Texas (13), Missouri (6), Georgia (5) and Florida (2). Oklahoma and Virginia had one each.
The two executions in Florida were down from eight in 2014, largely because Florida, like other states, held off on executions during most of the first part of 2015 until the Supreme Court determined whether Oklahoma's controversial lethal injection cocktail -- containing the drug midazolam -- was constitutional. Florida's lethal injection mixture also includes the drug. The court upheld use of it in a June ruling.
Dunham said the controversy over lethal injection drugs "had some effect" in yielding fewer executions nationwide in 2015, but "it does not explain the dramatic long-term drop in executions, new death sentences and public opinion."
While most states, including Texas, have executed fewer inmates over time, Florida saw an uptick in 2013 and 2014 -- with seven and eight executions in those years, respectively -- largely because of Gov. Rick Scott's accelerated pace of executing of death-row inmates.
With the execution of Jerry Correll in October, Scott surpassed former Gov. Jeb Bush in overseeing the most executions during his time in office. Correll's execution -- for brutally stabbing four people, including his 5-year-old daughter -- was the 22nd to take place in the death chamber at Florida State Prison since Scott took office in 2011.
The only other person executed in Florida this year was Johnny Kormondy, who was put to death in January for fatally shooting a Pensacola banker and raping his wife.
Already, two executions are scheduled for early 2016. The first -- Oscar Ray Bolin Jr., convicted of three murders in the Tampa Bay area in 1986 -- is slated for Jan. 7, but Bolin's attorneys are seeking a stay from the Florida Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Florida was second only to California this year in sentencing criminals to death. The number of new death sentences in Florida fell slightly to nine, compared to 11 in 2014, according to the center's findings. California had 14 this year.
Seven of Florida's nine new death sentences resulted from non-unanimous jury recommendations -- which is prohibited in most every other state. Only Delaware and Alabama join Florida in still allowing it.
Florida is the only state in which a jury can recommend a death sentence by a bare majority of seven of 12 jurors without also having to unanimously agree on aggravating circumstances to justify the ultimate punishment.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in October challenging Florida's system; justices are expected to deliver their ruling in 2016 for the case, Hurst v. Florida.
Dunham said the court could choose to rule on the constitutionality of either or both of Florida's outlier practices: allowing non-unanimous recommendations and allowing non-unanimous decisions on aggravating factors that yield the final recommendation.
"The issue of non-unanimous jury verdicts will gain even greater prominence if it is not decided by the Supreme Court," Dunham said. "One of the trends in the Supreme Court has been narrowing the circumstances in which the death penalty can be applied. As Florida becomes more obviously an outlier, its practices will face increased scrutiny."
Legislation has been filed for the 2016 session to require unanimous jury recommendations in Florida, but Republican lawmakers don't appear eager to take up the bills. They have said they want to see how the Supreme Court rules first.
392 people are on Florida's death row, the second-most in the nation.
If the court deems Florida's practices unconstitutional, the decision has the potential to throw an unknown number of cases into upheaval -- a figure death penalty experts, like Dunham, are still attempting to quantify.
There are 392 inmates on death row in Florida, the second-most nationwide. California has the most, with 745 inmates. Texas is third with 252.
Overall, fewer states and counties imposed death sentences in 2015, the center found.
But in regards to the nine new death sentences in Florida, Dunham said seven came from counties that are part of the 2 percent of counties nationwide that account for more than half of people on death row and that also generated 63 percent of new death sentences in 2015 alone.
They are: Hillsborough County -- which had two -- and Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval, Orange and Seminole, which each had one new death sentence.
Hillsborough was one of only six counties in the country to impose more than one death sentence in 2015, Dunham said. Riverside County in California, with eight, was responsible for 16 percent of new death sentences nationwide.
(c)2015 Miami Herald