Governor Rick Scott has signed into law the bill amending the procedure for Florida’s death penalty. The new law requires a unanimous jury finding for the death penalty, in order for it to pass constitutional muster.
Marian E. Williams
I spoke with NBC-2 this afternoon about the tragic Arson case in Arcadia where three little boys were killed. I’m not handling the case, but the news wanted to do a little color on Habitual Offenders and what her prior record means. Long story short- Marian Williams is facing a mandatory life sentence due to the First Degree Murder charges, and the State could potentially seek the death penalty. The DOC web page indicates she has already been to prison 7 different times, the last one for Aggravated Battery with a Deadly Weapon. She could qualify as a Habitual Offender, and is unlikely to ever be released from custody.
Watch for me on NBC-2 during the 6 o’clock hour and see if my clip makes the air!
Florida’s “Death Chamber”
The Florida Legislature fast-tracked a fix-it bill for the death penalty, which was found to use an unconstitutional procedure because it did not require a unanimous jury finding for a recommendation of the death sentence. That law was an imperfect fix for the previous procedure, and the Florida Supreme Court subsequently made it clear that a unanimous recommendation would be required to meet constitutional muster. Yesterday the Florida Senate approved a new bill that does require unanimity, and today the Florida House voted for it as well. The bill will head to the Governor’s desk, and he is expected to sign it in short order, effectively re-instituting the death penalty in Florida.
Those sentences to death after 2002 will have to have a new sentencing hearing if the State still wishes to seek the death penalty.
For those death row inmates whose cases were finalized before 2002, it appears the death sentences will not have to be revisited, pursuant to a Florida Supreme Court Decision that came out yesterday. The Court ruled that the legal issue is procedural, which means that it is not retroactive from prior to 2002. The court found that the state can move forward wit the execution of Michael Lambrix, who killed 2 people in Glades County some 30-plus years ago. He will surely seek a federal appeal before his execution goes forward.
Florida effectively has no death penalty right now. First, the procedure that had been in effect for years was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Hurst decision. Then, the legislature rushed through a new law to try to fix it, but the new law also failed to require a unanimous recommendation by the jury, and the Florida Supreme Court struck it down, as well. A new bill seeks to correct that shortcoming.
This bill in the State Senate is the first step in changing the law to make a lawful death penalty. The Florida House would also have to pass a law, and then for it to be signed by the governor before the State can resume seeking the death penalty. Right now the death penalty is on hold, pending a new law. The House may end up looking at even more extensive changes to the death penalty when they take up the issue, probably in this upcoming session, as well. The legislature may also look at changes to the Stand Your Ground Law this year.
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.
Mark Sievers & Jimmy Rodgers
Yesterday the State Attorney’s office filed a notice that they intend to seek the death penalty against Jimmy “The Hammer” Rodgers and Mark Sievers for the death of Sievers’ wife Theresa. That the state intends to seek the death penalty is not altogether surprising, as there are potentially several aggravating factors present that could justify the death penalty if proven, including the brutal nature of the killing, that it was premeditated, and that it was done for financial gain. On the other hand, the State has been unsuccessful in the last several attempts to seek the death penalty in Lee County.
To further complicate matters, the death penalty is very much in flux in Florida. Florida just amended its death penalty procedure, after the previous procedure was rejected by the Supreme Court in the Hurst decision. The new procedure, which increases the number of jurors that must vote to recommend the death penalty to 10 of 12, instead of unanimously, has already been rejected by some circuit-level judges. That matter will certainly be reviewed by the State Supreme Court.
This also means that Mark Sievers will have to get another attorney on his legal team, as his current lawyers are not death-penalty qualified. They can still represent him, but he will need a death penalty lawyer to join the team. Also keep in mind, the State has flipped Siever’s friend Curtis Wright to have him testify in the other prosecutions.
Florida’s Death Penalty laws are once again in disarray.
The Supreme Court
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.”
Timothy Hurst, currently on Death Row
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.
Posted in 14th Amendment - Due Process, 6th Amendment - Fair Trial, Criminal Law, Death Penalty, Florida, Supreme Court, Uncategorized
Tagged death penalty, Jury, murder, procedure, ring, sentencing, supreme court, timothy hurst, trial