Senators back death penalty in child rapes

The execution chair at the Florida State Prison in Starke.

TALLAHASSEE — Counting on a changed U.S. Supreme Court, a Florida Senate committee on Monday approved a bill that would allow the death penalty for people who commit sexual batteries on children under age 12.

Rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court have long barred death sentences for people who rape children, including a 2008 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in a Louisiana case.

But Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Jonathan Martin, a Fort Myers Republican who is sponsoring the bill (SB 1342), pointed to a “completely different makeup” on the U.S. Supreme Court.

All five members of the Supreme Court majority in the Louisiana case have left the court, while three of four dissenters — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito — remain on the court. Alito wrote the dissent.

“The new justices that have been appointed since then, I believe the majority of those would be in favor of what we’re doing here today, based on not only Justice Alito’s dissenting opinion from 2008 but also their overall framework of where they operate, their ideological framework, and how they interpret law,” Martin, a former prosecutor, said.

Martin and Rep. Jessica Baker, R-Jacksonville, filed bills to allow the death penalty for people who rape children after Gov. Ron DeSantis raised the idea in January. The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee is scheduled to take up Baker’s bill (HB 1297) on Tuesday.

The bills also came as lawmakers consider eliminating a requirement of unanimous jury recommendations before judges can impose death sentences in murder cases. The murder and sexual-battery bills would allow death sentences after the recommendations of 8 of 12 jurors.

Under Martin’s bill, jurors would have to find two “aggravating” factors before a person could be sentenced to death for raping a child. Finding aggravating factors also is part of the process of sentencing defendants to death in murder cases.

Two attorneys on the Senate committee, Hollywood Democrat Jason Pizzo and Fleming Island Republican Jennifer Bradley, suggested that changes might be needed to the bill to help withstand legal challenges.

But Pizzo, a former prosecutor, described people who sexually assault children as “depraved.”

“These are not crimes that you can ever be rehabilitated from,” Pizzo said. “No one has ever convinced me that you can be rehabilitated.”

Similarly, Martin said such a crime “doesn’t accidentally happen.”

“We’re going to kill you if you touch our little kids,” Martin said. “I’m OK with that.”

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