Jacksonville House Republican Jessica Baker at the Capitol on April 12, 2023 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)
Defying Supreme Court precedence, the Florida House overwhelmingly approved a measure Thursday that would broaden the death penalty to include child rapists.
The bill (HB 1297) sponsored by Jacksonville Republican Jessica Baker would allow for a jury to decide on the death penalty for people who commit sexual batteries on children under 12.
“This bill seeks to punish and also deter one of the most heinous and vile acts imaginable, that of sexual battery of a young child,” Baker said in introducing the bill on the House floor. “A crime so monstrous and horrific there can be no tolerance for the perpetrators in a civilized society.”
Under the proposal, only eight of 12 jurors could recommend death sentences in sexual battery cases. If less than eight jurors recommend death, defendants would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The bill also gives the judge the discretion to overturn the jury’s decision. The measure also says that the jury must find at least two aggravating factors to impose the death penalty, which is one more than is currently required for a jury to sentence someone to death.
Language in the bill says that Legislature believes that the 1981 Florida Supreme Court decision in the Buford v. State of Florida and the 2008 Kennedy v. Louisiana U.S. Supreme Court decisions were “wrongly decided and an infringement of the states’ power to punish the most heinous of crimes.”
The Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 decision in 2008 that the Louisiana law that allowed for the death penalty in cases involving child rape violated the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.
Baker said that she believes if the measure ultimately becomes law, Florida would become the only state in the nation to directly challenge the Supreme Court on the 2008 ruling, but she said that it was worthy of such a challenge. “They relied on their personal opinion to decide what the revolving standards of decency are, and what I’m saying is our evolving standards of decency are that we protect our kids,” she said.
The vote was 95-14, with the majority of the Democrats in the chamber aligning themselves with Republicans.
Saying that she agreed that sexual battery on a minor was “a heinous crime,” Gainesville Democrat Yvonne Hinson proposed an amendment that would remove the death penalty for those individuals convicted of that offense and instead have them chemically castrated. The proposal was supported by Jacksonville Democrat Angie Nixon, who said that the Legislature shouldn’t be in “the business of playing God,” and added that it would ultimately be “a harsher penalty than death.”
The amendment was not approved.
Broward County Democrat Mike Gottlieb, a criminal defense attorney, said that he had worked for 30 years with defendants who had been accused of such crimes and said that the threat of the death penalty wouldn’t serve as a deterrent. “They don’t think that they’re going to get caught,” he said.
But those sentiments were in the distinct minority.
Hillsborough County Republican Danny Alvarez said he couldn’t believe that lawmakers were debating the details on how to properly defend a child.
“Yes, this is not murder,” he said. “It’s worse.”
“When you rape a child, you kill that child’s spirit,” he added. “That rape lasts with every moment that child closes their eyes, and you tell me, ‘Oh, it doesn’t meet the standard.’ Well, you tell me whatever would meet the standard if you would not rise with the child, you would fall with the rapist.”
The Senate equivalent bill ( SB 1342) has passed unanimously through its two committees and will go before the entire chamber next Tuesday. If the bill makes its way to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk, he is likely to sign it. DeSantis said in January that he believes the Supreme Court made the wrong ruling in the 2008 case, and that believes the current makeup of the court would overturn that decision.
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