In between, however, uncertainty began to surround the death penalty in a state that has one of the country’s largest death row populations and is among its most regular executioners. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, only three states — Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia — have executed more inmates than Florida.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Florida’s death penalty statute unconstitutional, a decision that came five days after Bolin was executed.
The justices struck down Florida’s unusual system of imposing death sentences because the state allows judges, rather than juries, to make that call.
Florida lawmakers have vowed to change the state’s law to comply with the ruling and have called experts in to testify about ways to fix their system. The Supreme Court ruling has already impacted one case making its way through the state’s criminal justice system, as a judge said prosecutors couldn’t seek a death sentence because “there currently exists no death penalty in the state of Florida.”
In the meantime, it is unclear what impact, if any, the ruling will have outside the state, something we saw when the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from an Alabama inmate last month. And it is also not known precisely how this will impact the nearly 400 people already on Florida’s death row.
The question about what happens to these death-row inmates was directly presented to the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday morning as the justices heard oral arguments involving Lambrix’s case. In court filings before Tuesday, the state’s attorney general argued that the U.S. Supreme Court did not say that the ruling involving Florida’s death penalty would be retroactive and cover Lambrix. Attorneys for Lambrix, though, insisted that given the ruling, he was not given a constitutional death sentence.
On Tuesday afternoon, the state Supreme Court agreed to call off the lethal injection for the time being. It offered no explanation or timetable, only saying that it was granting the motion for a stay of execution “pending further order of this Court.”
This is the second time in less than a year that the Florida Supreme Court has moved to pause executions. Last year, while the U.S. Supreme Court was considering a challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal-injection protocol, the Florida court agreed to pause executions because the two states used similar drug combinations. Florida resumed executions after the justices upheld Oklahoma’s protocol.
This story has been updated.