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Florida considers the death penalty for sex crimes against children

Proposed legislation says a capital sexual battery defendant whose victim is under age 12 must be sentenced to death if at least 8 jurors vote in favor.
Proposed legislation says a capital sexual battery defendant whose victim is under age 12 must be sentenced to death if at least 8 jurors vote in favor.

Should Florida execute criminals who don’t kill anybody? That’s been a hotly debated question as the legislature considers 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 batters a child under the age of 12.

“Capital sexual battery punishable by death or life imprisonment has been a part of Florida's history and is currently in our statutes for such crimes against young children,” said Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Ft. Myers, the bill’s sponsor. He chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “But we have not used the death penalty sentencing options since the 1970s because of a string of court cases that many of us believe were wrongfully decided.”

Martin says the constitutionality of a death sentence when no murder was committed is debatable. He says court opinions have agreed that it’s within the legislature's purview to determine the punishment for criminal conduct.

So, his bill says a capital sexual battery defendant whose victim is under age 12 must be sentenced to death if at least 8 jurors vote in favor. Jurors have to find that at least two aggravating factors are present. One example is if the capital felony was committed by someone previously convicted of a felony and placed on community control or felony probation.

“I want to put a face on this issue. I want to put a face on the issue of one of your colleagues.” Lobbyist Ron Book shared his family’s story with the committee. His daughter was 16-years-old when he learned about her abuse.

“The furthest thing from my mind was that my daughter was being raped, beaten, molested,” he said, “and that had gone on for many years.” His daughter, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, is now 37 years old. She's the House Minority Leader and one of the bill’s co-sponsors. She has long been open about her childhood sexual abuse by a female housekeeper.

Head shot of House Minority Leader Lauren Book
House Minority Leader Lauren Book

Ron Book told the committee the perpetrator was released from prison in February and turned over for deportation. “I want you to think about the victim who never reports and suffers from anorexia and bulimia. I want you to think about those individual little children who turn to self-mutilation because I can tell you about all of those things,” he said. “I can tell you about that 16-year-old who dropped down below 80 pounds.”

“These are not crimes that you can ever be rehabilitated from,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, an attorney and former Miami Dade prosecutor who supports the bill. “You are a far more depraved individual, in my experience, to touch a kid than you are to shoot somebody, very often. I know that's kind of weird and hard to get around. But it's the truth.”

The bill passed the committee unanimously. A similar bill was heard the next day in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, where some Democrats opposed it.

“I feel like this bill puts people like me in an untenable situation,” said Rep. Michelle Rayner-Goolsby, D-St. Petersburg, also an attorney. “This bill is making a false equivalency. If I vote down on it, the message will be from the other side that I support child rape. If I vote up on it, the message will be that I no longer as a lawyer respect the preeminence of the Supreme Court.” She said legislators should not be filing bills that they know will have a constitutional challenge.

“The critics of this legislation, they're saying unconstitutional, and they're saying these things as if somehow Supreme Court opinions are somehow untouchable,” said Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Clearwater. He noted that even well-settled law can change, like last summer’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the longstanding right to an abortion at the federal level.

“We need courageous people to challenge unjust laws, laws that are no longer part of our culture and are no longer reflective on the people who made these decisions, who gave out these opinions,” said Jacques, who co-sponsors the bill.

Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that lawmakers would explore implementing the death penalty in these cases. He said that he expects legal challenges, but he thinks it’s right for the state to challenge those previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The court leans conservative now, with 6 of the 9 justices appointed by Republican presidents.

The governor also reiterated his desire that murderers be sentenced to death even if the jury isn’t unanimous. A bill that’s now ready for the full Senate says death sentences can be imposed if as few as 8 jurors say yes, but judges would have the discretion to make the final decision.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.