Florida continues to grapple with its death penalty


Three events in the last few weeks are indicative of the turmoil still surrounding the death penalty in Florida.

When the Florida Supreme Court acquitted Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. of the murder of his ex-girlfriend and their son last week, he became the 159th person exonerated from death row in the United States since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The court’s unanimous decision said the case was “purely circumstantial,” with the majority opinion concluding that “no rational trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt” that Wright was the killer.

Wright was sentenced to death in 2014 by a 7-5 jury recommendation.

In addition, the state Supreme Court also overturned five death sentences recently, on the grounds that the jury’s verdict in the sentencing phase of each was not unanimous, in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Hurst v. Florida. After the Hurst ruling, Florida changed its death penalty law to require a unanimous jury vote for death, and the state Supreme Court ruled that the revised law applies to all condemned inmates who were sentenced by non-unanimous juries after 2002.

Finally, a recent poll revealed that Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who became embroiled in a battle with Gov. Rick Scott when she announced she would no longer seek the death penalty in murder cases in her jurisdiction of Orange and Osceola counties, has a lot of support. Florida Politics reports that a poll by Public Policy Polling found that a majority of voters prefer a life sentence to the death penalty. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they preferred life in prison, compared to 31 percent who said they preferred the death penalty.

Gov. Scott removed 23 murder cases from Ayala’s office after she announced her decision, but this poll shows “her position on the death penalty is very much in line with the position of her constituents,” University of Florida law professor Kenneth B. Nunn said in a PPP news release.

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