Florida Republicans set to pass bill that would assign the death penalty to convicted child abusers
By JD Heyes // Apr 20, 2023

Florida lawmakers are currently set to pass a new measure that would allow the death penalty to be applied to individuals convicted of sexually assaulting children under the age of 12, though the proposal is expected to prompt legal challenges and raise questions about its constitutionality.

The House of Representatives is scheduled to review its version of the bill, HB 1297, on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Senate version of the bill, SB 1342, has already been approved by the Rules Committee, indicating that it may soon be presented to the full Senate for consideration, Red State reports.

The House and Senate bills represent a challenge to established legal precedent, as they reject the 1981 Florida Supreme Court case and 2008 US Supreme Court case, both of which prohibited the death penalty in cases of rape and sexual abuse. Both versions of the bill argue that these cases were "wrongly decided" and represent an "egregious infringement of the states' power to punish the most heinous of crimes," the outlet noted, citing the Florida lawmakers' analysis.

Jonathan Martin, a Republican state senator and former prosecutor who is sponsoring the bill, argues that the legislation would respect “constitutional boundaries by providing a sentencing procedure for those heinous crimes.”

“If an individual rapes an 11-year-old, a 10-year-old, a 2-year-old or a 5-year-old, they should be subject to the death penalty,” Martin said Tuesday following approval of the measure by the House Rules Committee.

The proposed legislation has faced significant criticism, with Aaron Wyat from the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers arguing that while people may desire "vengeance" against pedophiles, implementing the death penalty would require overturning long-standing legal precedent.

“This bill invites a longer, costlier (legal) process for the victim and their family that they will endure,” Wayt said, according to Red State. “While this crime, anyone convicted of it is vile, heinous, the Constitution itself, the case law, the Supreme Court demands a maximum of life in prison. And so while it’s not the vengeance we all want, it’s the justice that the Constitution demands.”

Far-left Slate magazine, meanwhile, argued as well that a “sentence of life without parole is a harsh and severe punishment,” even for someone convicted of abusing children.

“Instead of spending millions of dollars to possibly change long-standing precedent, Florida’s resources are much better spent trying to protect our children from the abuse in the first place and ensuring survivors have access to mental health treatment and the proper support following the offense,” the magazine wrote in an editorial.

Despite facing significant criticism, the proposed legislation has received support from some Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, a Democrat from Plantation, who was herself a victim of sexual abuse as a minor and has since founded the advocacy organization Lauren's Kids, argues that “there is no statute of limitations” for the victims of this kind of abuse.

“There’s no statute of limitations that a victim suffers. This is a life sentence that is handed down to young children,” Book said.

“I still deal with the very real, lasting effects of this crime. It never goes away,” she said, adding, “I don’t get a chance to make it stop.”

The proposed legislation outlines a requirement for eight out of 12 jurors to recommend the death penalty for it to be imposed. In cases where the death penalty is a potential sentence, judges will have the option to choose between the death penalty or life imprisonment. If fewer than eight jurors support capital punishment, the defendant will receive a sentence of life imprisonment instead, Red State explained.

Under current law in Florida, judges can only impose the death penalty in murder cases if the jury recommends it unanimously. However, lawmakers may modify this requirement to allow for death sentences to be imposed if eight out of 12 jurors approve it. The Senate has already passed this change, and the House is expected to debate it on Thursday.

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