An in-depth look at Florida’s death penalty comes from a surprising source

Protesters to the death penalty demonstrate across the highway from the Florida State Correctional facility near Starke, Fla.,Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. (AP)

An impressive death penalty investigation rolled out last weekend by a somewhat surprising source— The Villages Daily Sun, which serves a sprawling retirement community in Central Florida— was a must-read even before today’s US Supreme Court decision declaring Florida’s death penalty sentencing process unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court today ruled that Florida’s unique procedure for meting out the death penalty violates a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. In Florida, a jury issues an advisory verdict that does not have to be unanimous. A judge then decides separately whether the facts surrounding a murder include aggravating factors that warrant the death penalty.

All of which raises the question posed in the headline of the Daily Sun’s investigation: “How would Florida’s death row look if it had to play by the same rules as other states?” Daily Sun reporter Katie Sartoris told me that her investigation was prompted by the fact that the youngest death row inmate in Florida is from the newspaper’s circulation area. He did not have a unanimous verdict from the jury during the penalty phase (a unanimous verdict is required to convict).

“It got us thinking about how Florida is an outlier,” Sartoris said. Alabama and Delaware are the two other states that don’t require a unanimous verdict at the penalty phase.

Reporters around the state may be surprised that the Daily Sun— a paper that is not traditionally known for its investigative work and has been criticized for one-sided political coverage—did this kind of ambitious project. Last summer, the paper created its first so-called SWAT Team devoted to special projects and investigations “so we can dedicate more resources to in-depth work,” Sartoris said. A combination of seven reporters, editors and producers are contributing to the effort.

“We’re very excited about it,” she said.

Sartoris started out at the Daily Sun straight out of college in 2012, first covering education. She’s now the associate managing editor for special projects. And the death penalty investigation, complete with a look at the secrecy behind the death warrant process and the lethal injection method, isn’t Sartoris’ first. She produced a sharp investigation into dog racing deaths in December.

She also dug up a number that is important to consider as Florida’s death penalty process is in the headlines: How many inmates on Florida’s death row were sent there without a unanimous jury verdict during the penalty phase of the trial? It took Sartoris 18 months of digging through online and paper archives, but she determined that 287 of the 390 men and women on death row in this state fall into that unique category.

With all the scrutiny the death penalty receives, it’s surprising no one had tracked down this number before.

“All of the state agencies we talked to told us they didn’t have the numbers,” Sartoris said.

So she and Curt Hills, the paper’s managing editor for special projects, and production editor Amy Johstono headed up to Tallahassee to dig through the records.* In some cases, they were able to find the information on jury verdicts from online records of the Florida Supreme Court, but for many they had to dig through the Florida Archives.

Reporters covering today’s Court decision can get a lot of the background they need from Sartoris’ wide-ranging investigation. For one small point, I’ve seen reports today that put the number of inmates on Florida’s death row at 400 but there are, as Sartoris reported, 390 right now. I’ve also seen reporting that the Supreme Court’s decision will only affect the cases of a few of the inmates on Florida’s Death Row, but that’s not actually clear. Sartoris quoted Stephen Harper, a professor at Florida International University and coordinator of the Florida Center for Capital Representation, saying the ruling could throw Florida’s system “into chaos.”

Bruce Fleisher, a Miami criminal defense attorney who has tried more than 30 death penalty cases, told me he expected a lot of cases may be affected by the decision.

“Anyone who has been sentenced to death in the state of Florida, or any other state with similar provisions, will be filing motions for post-conviction relief,” he said. “The opinion doesn’t say what the next step is and who is going to be entitled to relief or what they will be entitled to.”

Although today’s decision did not address the main reason Florida’s death penalty process is such an outlier - the failure to require a unanimous jury decision - it did leave Florida without a constitutional death penalty law. Fleisher said he expects the legislature to act very quickly, simply because as it stands right now current cases could be in jeopardy. A state lawmaker who represents The Villages community has filed legislation changing Florida’s statute to bring it in line with most of the rest of the country and require a unanimous verdict at the penalty phase.

In other words, there is much work still ahead for reporters on this story. Meantime, anyone in need of a detailed primer can turn to, yes, the Daily Sun.

* This sentence has been revised to correct the spelling of Curt Hills’ last name.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.