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.
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
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