ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - Fewer convicted killers in the state of Florida are getting the death penalty because of a change in the sentencing process.
In 2017, a state Supreme Court ruling forced Florida juries to vote unanimously to decide on a death sentence. Before that, it only required a simple majority.
One of the first high-profile trials to play out under the new rules was the murder of a 5-year-old Orange County boy killed by his own father. Darell Avant Sr. was convicted in June after beating Darell Avant Jr. for getting trouble at school one day. When the boy passed out, his father Googled “How to check an infant’s pulse” rather than call 911.
The elder Avant was sentenced to life in prison, but only a few years ago, that life sentence could have instead been a death penalty.
“There were people on the jury who, if they had their way, would have given him the death penalty,” said one of the jurors in Avant’s trial, who talked to Channel 9 on the condition of protecting her identity. “None of us thought that he meant to kill his son.”
The new rule for juries makes the jury selection process more delicate for prosecutors and defense attorneys.
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“Now we have a jury of one, times 12,” said defense attorney Roger Weeden. “Each juror makes the decision individually and if one juror votes for life, it’s over.”
On the flip side, prosecutors say they’re looking for people who know they could vote for the death penalty.
State Attorney Phil Archer said that when potential jurors are asked about the death penalty and say, “’I’m not sure I can,’ or ‘I’m not positive,' we would have concerns with that person sitting on the jury because it only takes one now.”
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Central Florida’s two largest judicial circuits have seen 55 potential death penalty cases since 2010. Juries recommended six of the defendants to be executed, and just two of those were after the unanimous jury requirement went into effect.
“I think you’re definitely going to see a reduction in the number of cases that receive or obtain a death penalty sentence,” Archer said.
Prosecutors are still seeking the death penalty despite the confusion. Central Florida’s two largest judicial circuits have a total of 18 capital cases working their way through the courts right now and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in all but two of them.
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