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Dissecting juror deliberations under Florida’s death penalty law

March 17, 2013

The jurors had started to talk it out.

Some thought Patrick Evans should die for what he did to his estranged wife and the man he found in her bedroom — shot him in the neck, then, as she cried for help, pulled the trigger again.

But in a Pinellas County jury room on Nov. 10, 2011, some could not agree that the murders deserved the death penalty. One woman cried, remembers juror Quentin Davis. He asked the rest to find out why, and remembers one man saying he didn’t care, that it wouldn’t change his mind.

Some didn’t want to share their thoughts, says juror Phyllis McMahon. “They either weren’t talking about it, or would hint maybe life in prison was okay, or they weren’t saying at all. You could tell by body language, by silence, by facial expression.”

So the jurors came up with a solution:

They would put their written votes in a cup.

Out they came: 9-3 for death in the wife’s murder, 8-4 for the same in the death of the man.

There was no need for further debate.

They had what they needed.

In Florida, defendants must be found guilty by a unanimous vote, whether they steal a car or kill. But when it comes to recommending the ultimate punishment, a simple majority, 7-5, suffices.

This is the only state in America that allows such split juries to recommend death. And it matters. In 2012, almost two-thirds of the defendants sent to Florida’s death row were ushered there even after some of the jurors believed they should be spared…

Determining whether someone should be put to death is the most profound choice an ordinary citizen could be asked to make.

Yet out of 13 states, Florida had the highest percentage of recommendations reached in less than an hour and the lowest percentage of recommendations reached in more than three hours. It had the lowest percentage of deliberations in which jurors asked to review testimony or transcripts, and the highest percentage of jurors who said their sentence was decided in one vote.

Yet majority is still the law in Florida.

It preceded the sentences of 11 out of 18 Florida defendants sent to death row in 2012.

Forty-two jurors of 132 — almost a third — voted to spare the lives of those defendants. The Tampa Bay Times sought to speak with them, and every other juror who contributed to a majority vote that led to the death penalty in 2012.

Twelve jurors responded from five Florida counties. This jury of jurors allowed the Times to dissect their deliberations, both the unanimous guilt verdict and the majority death recommendation, and gave their opinions on the law.

Some believe a simple majority vote is fine for the penalty. Some think it should change. Some feel that if unanimity had been required when they deliberated, it could have meant the difference between life and death.

Many agree that a unanimous requirement, at least, would have kept them talking.

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