The procedure for Florida’s Death Penalty was found to be unconstitutional, despite efforts to rework it, until March of last year, when a procedure that meets Constitutional muster was approved and signed into law. But what to do with the cases that had been sentenced under the old procedure. Florida’s Supreme Court ended up splitting the baby, basing their decision on when the US Supreme Court issued their controlling decision in Ring v. Arizona back in 2002. The Florida Court decided that the rule would be applied retroactively to cases decided after the Ring decision, but that individuals sentenced before then are out of luck: even though the Court had already decided the procedure used to sentence them was unconstitutional.
The decision is based on the rule that decisions based on procedure will not be retroactive. In the last several weeks, the Court has been busy issuing ruling after ruling that declines to apply the rule announced in the Hurst case to pre-2002 convictions. This column from the Tampa Bay Times takes a look at the spate of opinions that have recently been released, and the sometimes incongruous results. It’s definitely worth a read.
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.
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.
The Death Penalty has been on hold in Florida for some time. While the Florida Supreme Court struck down the current law for its non-unanimous procedure, that law was only passed a year ago to address earlier decisions that prohibited the enforcement of the death penalty, also for procedural reasons. The courts have made it clear they will require a unanimous finding by a jury before a judge can impose death. A new bill being prepared would address that. Once the law is reestablished, the prosecutors across the state will have to review the cases since 2002 to determine if they wish to proceed on new death penalty sentencing hearings: which will affect a few cases here in Southwest Florida.
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.
- Prosecutors have indicated an intention to seek the death penalty
- Mark Sievers’ attorneys will need assistance
Mark Sievers was back in court last week, as the court considered whether his attorneys can stay on the case. The judge ruled that they can, for now, but they will need to get assistance from an attorney who is qualified to handle death penalty cases. Florida law requires that an attorney working on a death penalty has special qualifications to do so, including previously working on a death penalty trial as second chair to a death-qualified attorney, and neither Mr. Faga nor Mr. Mummert has that qualification. However, they indicated to the court last week that they have been in contact with the death penalty unit, which has agreed to help out. Judge Kyle has agreed to let them stay on the case at this time (provisionally).
Jimmy Rodgers, “The Hammer”
Co-defendant Jimmy Rodgers, aka “The Hammer”, was also in court for a case management hearing as well. He is represented by attorney’s for the public defender’s office, who indicated that they are in a holding pattern due to the concern over the qualifications of Sievers’ attorneys. Normally, it would be time to start setting depositions at this time, but it’s important to have a death-qualified attorney, as there are specific death-penalty inquiries that need to be undertaken. For instance, a few years ago a local attorney took over a case that had been handled by a non-qualified attorney, and had to redo many of the depositions to cover additional issues. That’s a waste of time and resources that judge Kyle is being cautious to avoid.
How did we get here? After the third co-defendant, Curtis Wright, pled out to his second-degree murder charge, he gave a proffer (statement) regarding his involvement. Mark Sievers was charged after the State gained Wright’s cooperation. Subsequently, the State presented the case to a grand jury and obtained an indictment for first degree murder. This process is necessary before they can seek the death penalty. The state then filed their notice of the intent to seek the death penalty. Sievers’ attorneys have filed a motion to strike the notice of intent (alleging untimeliness, but the state contends it was filed in a timely manner under the law.) There are many other pretrial issues that remain to be decided, and much investigation and depositions to be done.
Another issue is the validity of the Death Penalty in Florida. The Supreme Court invalidated the procedure for the death penalty, and the legislature promulgated a new law for the procedure. That law was invalidated by a couple judges, but it was reinstated on appeal. The issue will reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court, and it may end up going back to the Supreme Court of the United States. Florida heard arguments in June, but has yet to rule.