Death Penalty for 17 Year Olds in Florida

In LeCroy v. State, 533 So. 2d 750 (Fla. 1988), the Supreme Court of Florida determined that imposing the death penalty on a person who was seventeen years old at the time of the crime did not violate the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The opinion in LeCroy couched the argument as "cruel and unusual" rather than "cruel or unusual." LeCroy v. State, 533 So. 2d 750, 756 (Fla. 1988). To make this determination, the Court focused on the legislative history regarding capital punishment and juveniles: Florida law generally recognizes distinctions between juveniles and adults but section 39.02(5)(c), Florida Statutes (1979-1987), mandates that a child of any age charged with a capital crime "shall be tried and handled in every respect as if he were an adult." The words "every respect" could not be clearer and can only be read as a declaration of legislative intent that persons under eighteen years may be subject to the same penalty as an adult. This has been the long-standing law in Florida. Prior to 1950, the Florida Constitution vested jurisdiction over all criminal charges against juveniles in criminal courts, i.e., not in juvenile courts, and all juveniles were tried as adults. The constitution was amended in 1950 to authorize the legislature to confer criminal jurisdiction on cases involving juveniles in juvenile courts. The legislature responded by enacting chapter 26880, section 1, Laws of Florida (1951), codified as chapter 39, Florida Statutes (1951). Under chapter 39, jurisdiction for violations of law allegedly committed by a child, then defined as a person under seventeen years of age, was removed from criminal courts and placed in either juvenile courts or county courts in those counties where no juvenile court existed. 39.01, .02, Fla.Stat. (1951). Section 39.02(6), Florida Statutes (1951), granted discretion to the juvenile court to transfer felony charges against children fourteen years of age or older to criminal courts, except "that a child sixteen years of age or older who, if an adult, would be charged with a capital offense, shall be transferred." Since 1951, the legislature has steadily expanded the transfer of criminal charges from juvenile to criminal courts and has, similarly, expanded and reiterated its decision that juveniles charged with capital offenses be tried and handled as adults. In 1955, the legislature amended section 39.02(6) by deleting "sixteen years or older" and providing that any child, irrespective of age, indicted by a grand jury for an offense punishable by death or life imprisonment shall be tried in criminal court. Section 39.02(6) was further revised, and legislative intent made even clearer in 1967 and 1969 by providing: (c) When an indictment is returned by the grand jury charging a child of any age with a violation of Florida law punishable by death, or punishable by life imprisonment, the juvenile court shall be without jurisdiction, and the charge shall be made, and the child shall be handled, in every respect as if he were an adult. 39.02(6)(c), Fla.Stat. (1969). In 1973, the legislature substantially rewrote chapter 39. Exclusive original jurisdiction of charges against juveniles was returned to the circuit court and provisions were made whereby the court could try any child fourteen years of age or older as an adult on any criminal charge. A child was also redefined as any person under eighteen years of age. Ch. 73-231, 2, 3, Laws of Fla. (1973). In 1978, the legislature rewrote and recast section 39.02, providing that a child once tried as an adult would thereafter be subject to prosecution, trial, and sentencing as an adult for any subsequent criminal violations. Ch. 78-414, 3, Laws of Fla. (1978). Finally, in 1981, the legislature further amended the recast 39.02(5) by providing that trials of offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment would include trials of any other criminal violations connected with the primary offense. Further, if convicted of the offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment, "the child shall be sentenced as an adult." Ch. 81-269, 1, Laws of Fla. (1981) (codified at 39.02(5)(c), Fla. Stat. (1981)). Several points are clear from the legislative history recounted above. First, legislative action through approximately the last thirty-five years has consistently evolved toward treating juveniles charged with serious offenses as if they were adult criminal defendants. Second, since 1951, the legislature has repeatedly reiterated the historical rule that juveniles charged with capital crimes will be handled in every respect as adults. (533 So. 2d at 756-57.)