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
Former Judge Tracie Hunter
Former Hamilton County Judge Tracie Hunter’s verdict was upheld on appeal yesterday. The 1st District Court of Appeals in Ohio released their decision yesterday. Her attorney disagrees with the verdict, and has indicated they will be appealing to the Ohio Supreme Court.
One of the issues is that the jury was not polled after reading the verdict. Normally, after a verdict is announced in court, the jury is polled to confirm that the verdict was correctly recorded. Hunter’s attorney asked the judge to do so, but he declined, because he had previously had them make an affirmation. The jury reached a verdict on only one count, and the judge received that verdict and they continued deliberating on the other counts. When the judge got the verdict on the one count, which we later found out was ‘guilty’, he asked the jurors for an affirmation… but he never announced what the verdict was that he was having them affirm.
Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if the jurors agreed on the verdict. However, now three of them have signed affidavits that say if they had been polled at the end of the trial, their verdicts would not have been the same. That’s a problem. However, the law in Ohio apparently does not require that the verdict be published before the jury is polled. That seems counter-intuitive: how can the jury affirm the verdict if the judge hasn’t told them what he believe the verdict to be? I will be curious what the Supreme Court says, and if the appeal doesn’t work, whether there could be a post-conviction motion based on the post-trial affidavits mentioned earlier.
The Supreme Court has found that Florida’s unique death penalty sentencing procedure is unconstitutional. The court found years ago that a jury must find the aggravating factors necessary and to makes the ultimate selection of a sentence of death. Florida’s procedure requires the jury to find the factors and to make a recommendation of death, but then allows the judge to make the final decision. The court was not satisfied with this advisory function of the jury. The death penalty sentencing procedure was found to be insufficient and the cases that previously supported it have been overturned by this week’s 8-1 decision.
Some news sites have said that the Court found Florida’s death penalty Unconstitutional. This is incorrect… it was the procedure by which Florida imposes the death sentence that has been found lacking. Currently there are about 365 inmates on Florida’s death row, and probably all a product of this sentencing scheme. Undoubtedly, they will all be raising this issue. The legislature is already considering bills to adjust the sentencing scheme to comport with the court’s ruling.
Convicted Killer Timothy Hurst via FL DOC
However, this decision may not provide relief for many of the inmates already sentenced to death. Generally, a decision won’t be retroactive if it deals with a procedural issue, and this is very much a procedural ruling. It would seem shocking that courts in the future might allow dozens or hundreds of death sentences to stand based on sentences that did not include the Constitutionally required fact finding by juries… but that remains to be seen. We’ll be watching closely.
Here’s the slip opinion in Hurst v. Florida.
Posted in 6th Amendment - Fair Trial, Criminal Law, Death Penalty, Florida, Supreme Court, Uncategorized
Tagged death penalty, Jury, prodecure, ring, sentencing, supreme court, timothy hurst, trial
Michael Spiegel Mug Shot
There was never any doubt that he did it, he was apprehended shortly after the crime splattered with the victims’ blood. However, Michael Spiegel’s defense at trial was that he was not sane at the time of the killings. The jury found him guilty in just a couple of hours.
Insanity is an affirmative defense, which means the burden is on the Defendant to prove that he was insane at the time. It’s difficult to do, especially when two people are brutally killed. There was evidence of a long history of mental illness, but the jury did not find it sufficient. The State argued that the steps he took demonstrated planning: which is indicative that he understood the nature and wrongness that he undertook. The finding today doesn’t mean that he wasn’t crazy, but that the jury wasn’t convinced that he was so mentally impaired that he did not appreciate what he was doing or that it was wrong.
There is a 25 year minimum mandatory sentence on the firearm charge. Due to his age, Mr. Spiegel will almost certainly die in prison, even if the judge doesn’t give him a life sentence.
You can read the standard Florida jury instruction on Insanity here.
My friend, fellow BU LAW classmate Jenn Rolnick Borchetta, was on MSNBC discussing racial disparities in jury selection. The problem is twofold: 1. There is a concern that discrimination in jury selection will deny people their Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and, 2. If potential jurors are struck based on their race, they are being denied their constitutional right to serve on a jury. I don’t know what the answer is, but action probably needs to be taken when the NY Times article this week sounds a lot like the one published five years ago.
Here’s the MSNBC story from Newsnation with Tamron Hall (with video).