Florida’s Death Penalty laws are once again in disarray.
Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the procedure Florida was using to determine when the death penalty should be imposed, in the Hurst case. That meant that there was functionally no death penalty in the state of Florida. The legislature moved quickly to amend the law to establish a new procedure to prosecute the death penalty in Florida, and a new version was signed into law in March. Now, all that work is out the window…
Judge Milton Hirsch, a circuit judge in Miami-Dade, has ruled that the new procedure is also unconstitutionally inadequate. The Florida procedure does not require a unanimous jury verdict before the death penalty can be imposed. Florida and Alabama are the only states that did not require unanimity, and that specific issue was not discussed by the Supreme Court in the Hurst case. Ultimately, the issue is likely to be appealed to the Florida Supreme court, and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court again, but Judge Hirsch’s opinion is the first to address the issue since the new procedure was passed.
Hirsch was critical of the law, finding that the changes were not enough. He wrote, “Arithmetically the difference between twelve and ten is slight, but the question before me is not a question of arithmetic. It is a question of constitutional law. It is a question of justice.”
Meanwhile, the other issue up in the air is whether the Hurst decision is retroactive. That is, are all of the Floridians on death row entitled to new sentencing hearings?- 390 of them are currently on death row. While they would still be subject to a new death sentence, a ruling finding that Hurst is retroactive would likely spare a great number of inmates that the state would not wish to retry their sentencing hearings.
While it seems to be a no-brainer that if the procedure used to impose death was unconstitutional that the sentences could not stand, the courts have often held that these types of rulings are procedural, and do not apply retroactively. It will be interesting to see what the Florida Supreme Court does on the issue. Until then, Florida executions will have to be on hold. The Florida Supreme Court recently heard arguments regarding whether Hurst will mandate that he, and many other similarly situated cases will be reduced to life without parole.