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March 1, 2014
Bill would double jury size for life felonies

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

Size matters — when it comes to juries.

Bills in the House and Senate to double the number of jurors from six to 12 in life-felony cases have favorably passed out of committees.

At the Senate Criminal Justice Subcommittee on February 17, Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, sponsor of CS/SB 94 (identical to CS/HB 39) explained that Florida is only one of three states (with Connecticut and Utah) to still have only six jurors in trials where convictions bring life sentences with no chance for parole. She said doubling the size of juries to 12 — as Florida now has in capital cases — would bring “a much more informed decision” in serious life-felony cases, too.

Alisa Smith, an associate professor of law and justice at the University of Tampa, cited a law review article she co-wrote with Arizona State University College of Law Professor Michael Saks that details how 12-person juries are superior in four ways: community representation, quality of group deliberation, ability of minorities on the jury to resist majority pressure, and fact-finding reliability.

“This proposed bill corrects the historical and empirical mistake made by the United States Supreme Court in Williams v. Florida in 1970,” Smith said. “By that decision, the United States Supreme Court reversed 700 years of common law history and 200 years of constitutional law precedent. It determined that six- and 12-person juries are the functional equivalent. They are not.”

Sixth Circuit Public Defender Bob Dillinger said the Florida Public Defender Association supports the proposed change.

But Buddy Jacobs, of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, countered that the Florida Legislature in 1967 set the six-person jury, and three years later the U.S.S.C. held in Williams v. Florida that the Sixth Amendment says nothing about the number of jurors.

Jacobs described it as “an interesting idea,” but “not one where there has been any public outcry. It needs to be looked at, perhaps, but not done quickly to overturn, from 1967, the jurisprudence of Florida.”

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Ft. Lauderdale, said his constituents “would cry out for a 12-person jury when someone is facing life in prison” because “it would increase the opportunity to have a more diverse jury.”

Calling it “a golden opportunity to move Florida forward,” Smith pressed Jacobs to answer why prosecutors are against it. Finally, Jacobs said they feared more hung juries, and that it would require more attorney time, for both defense and prosecutors.

Only Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, voted against the bill. On February 4, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed CS/SB 94 on a 4-to-3 vote. CS/HB 39, co-sponsored by Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, and Rep. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, unanimously passed out of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on February 12.

[Revised: 04-19-2015]