Florida once again has no death penalty, in two separate, highly anticipated rulings today, the Florida Supreme Court sent the legislature back to the drawing board. However, the court did not go as far as some advocates wanted, and declined to commute all current death sentences to life in prison. There are still questions to be answered about every inmate currently sitting on Florida’s death row- 385 total at this time.
One ruling is in regards to the new death penalty procedure laid out by the legislature earlier this year after the Supreme Court ruling in the Hurst case. The Supreme Court had declared Florida’s procedure unconstitutional because it gave the judge and not the jury the power to impose a death sentence. The legislature went back to the drawing board, and rewrote the procedure, but the new procedure was quickly challenged under the Constitution because it did not require a unanimous jury verdict. The court in its ruling today in Perry v. State, found that the Constitution requires that the must make a unanimous finding of at least one of the aggravating factors, and that the recommendation of the death penalty must also be unanimous.
The other ruling that came out today addressed the Hurst case. The US Supreme Court had ordered the court to consider whether the error was harmless. The Florida Supreme Court has now ruled that the error was not harmless, and that Hurst is entitled to a new sentencing hearing. And there’s the rub for the state, because the current procedure was found to be unconstitutional. The court made it clear in Perry that the Florida death penalty is not unconstitutional… but it functionally might as well be, because there is not Constitutionally permissible way to impose such a sentence, until the legislature goes back to the drawing board again.
The Court has not addressed how these procedural changes will affect the other inmates on death row whose sentences were imposed before Hurst, under the old procedure. Normally, procedural changes don’t retroactively affect sentences, and the Court was clear today that their ruling is procedural. However, I think the courts will be hard-pressed to allow 300+ executions to go forward on an unconstitutional death penalty sentencing procedure. we will continue to watch on Crimcourts. Check out our earlier coverage of the death penalty issues.