A capital offense is a crime punishable by death. Jurisdictions in the United States (i.e. Florida and New York state courts and U.S. Federal criminal courts), have defined capital homicides as aggravated homicides. An aggravator is an enhancement of punishment due to extraordinary facts which are cruel or heinous and always involve the use of a weapon or device which causes the victim excessive suffering or injury in the course of the taking of a human life.
Historically, capital homicide was a statutory category of murder in Great Britain. Britain has banned death as punishment for capital homicide, but in the United States, thirty-one states and the U.S. Federal Criminal Code have death penalties for designated crimes. Florida is one of the states that punishes offenders with the death penalty for enumerated capital offenses. Other states use the term “aggravated murder” or “capital murder” for death penalty offenses. In Florida, as in many of the other states that have capital punishment, offenses involving the taking of a human life include:
- Police officer, fire fighter, paramedic and security personnel
- When the victim is a child
- Killings which occur during the commission of violent felonies such as sexual assault, burglary, kidnapping and most violent crimes
- Multiple murders committed concurrently
- Murder for hire
- The killing of a witness in a criminal prosecution
- The killing of a prosecutor or a State or Federal judge
- Acts of terrorism
In Florida, the taking of a human life without justification or excuse with malice and aforethought, including recklessness manifesting extreme indifference to human life or cruel and heinous killings warrant imposition of the death penalty.
A capital murder and first degree homicides are capital offenses, when based on special circumstances that demonstrate a depraved indifference to suffering or the taking of a human life demonstrating cruelty in the manner of the killing.
In Florida, the imposition of the death penalty involves a two step process. In the course of the trial the first part of the presentation of proofs by the State goes to the taking of a human life and then the jury will return a verdict of guilty or not guilty during the first part of the trial. The second stage is the punishment phase where the State presents argument justifying the imposition of the death penalty. This is the penalty phase of the trial and occurs only after a finding by the jury that the crime of murder has been committed. The jury will then return with a recommendation of death or life imprisonment. The jury’s recommendation of punishment (a life prison sentence or the death penalty) is then presented to the court. At that point in the sentencing phase, judges in Florida can make a determination to impose a death sentence or life imprisonment in disregard of the jury’s determination of the appropriate punishment, since in this state, the jury’s decision to impose or not impose death is not binding on the trial judge.