Florida considering death penalty for sex crimes against children
Should Florida execute criminals who don’t kill anyone? This issue has been hotly debated as lawmakers debate whether child rapists should be sentenced to death. If the legislation passes, lawmakers on both sides anticipate legal challenges.
House and Senate committees this week considered proposals that would allow the death penalty for anyone who sexually assaults a child under 12.
“Capital sexual violence punishable by death or life imprisonment is a part of Florida history and is currently in our statutes for such crimes against young children,” said Sen. Jonathan Martin, R -ft. Myers, the sponsor of the bill. He chairs the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. “But we haven’t used the death penalty options since the 1970s because of a series of court cases that many of us believe were decided wrongly.”
Martin says the constitutionality of a death sentence when no murder has been committed is questionable. He says the opinions of the courts have agreed that it is for the legislature to determine the sentence for criminal conduct.
Thus, his bill stipulates that an accused of capital sexual violence whose victim is under 12 years old must be sentenced to death if at least 8 jurors vote for it. The jurors must find that at least two aggravating factors are present. An example is if the capital crime was committed by a person previously convicted of a felony and placed on community supervision or felony probation.
“I want to put a face to this issue. I want to put a face to the question of one of your colleagues. Lobbyist Ron Book shared his family’s story with the committee. His daughter was 16 when he found out she was being abused.
“The furthest thing from my mind was that my daughter was being raped, beaten, assaulted,” he said, “and that had been going on for many years.” His daughter, Senator Lauren Book, D-Plantation, is now 37. She is the House Minority Leader and one of the co-sponsors of the bill. She has long been open about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child by a housekeeper.
Lauren Book, House Minority Leader
Ron Book told the committee that the attacker was released from jail in February and remanded for deportation. “I want you to think about the victim who never reports and has anorexia and bulimia. I want you to think about those little kids who turn to self-harm because I can tell you about all these things” , he said, “I can tell you about this 16-year-old who fell below 80 pounds.”
“These are not crimes you can ever be pardoned from,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, a lawyer and former Miami Dade prosecutor who supports the bill. “You’re a much more depraved person, in my experience, to touch a child than to shoot someone, very often. I know it’s a little weird and hard to get around. But it’s the truth .”
The bill was passed in committee unanimously. A similar bill was heard the next day before the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, where some Democrats opposed it.
“I feel like this bill puts people like me in an untenable position,” said Rep. Michelle Rayner-Goolsby, D-St. Petersburg, also a lawyer. “This bill makes a false equivalence. If I vote against it, the message will come from the other side that I support child rape. If I vote yes, the message will be that as a lawyer, I no longer respect the preeminence of the Supreme Court. She said lawmakers should not introduce bills that they know will face a constitutional challenge.
“Critics of this legislation, they say it’s unconstitutional, and they say these things as if the opinions of the Supreme Court are somehow untouchable,” said Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Clearwater. He noted that even well-established law can change, such as last summer’s US Supreme Court ruling overturning the longstanding federal right to abortion.
“We need brave people to challenge unjust laws, laws that are no longer part of our culture and no longer reflect the people who made these decisions, who gave these opinions,” said Jacques, who co-sponsors the law Project.
Earlier this year, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that lawmakers would consider applying the death penalty in such cases. He said he expects legal challenges, but he thinks it’s fair for the state to challenge those previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The court now leans conservative, with 6 of the 9 justices appointed by Republican presidents.
The governor also reiterated his wish that the murderers be sentenced to death even if the jury is not unanimous. A bill that is now ready for the full Senate says death sentences can be handed down if only 8 jurors say yes, but judges would have discretion to make the final decision.