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Florida has nearly 400 death-row inmates. Will the state overturn all of their death sentences?

Death-penalty opponents protest an execution in Florida. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

Florida has hundreds of inmates on its death row and is among the states most persistent with capital punishment. But a group of former Florida Supreme Court justices, elected officials, prosecutors and a federal judge said this week that the state needs to overturn every one of those death sentences and replace them with life in prison.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s unique system of imposing death sentences, which the justices deemed unconstitutional because it let judges, rather than juries, make the final decision. In response, Florida formally revamped its death penalty, an overhaul aimed at letting the state resume executions and, as Gov. Rick Scott (R) said when he signed the changes into law, “allow families of these horrific crimes to get the closure they deserve.”

Nearly two months after Scott signed the bill, executions have not resumed in Florida. And it remains to be seen what all of this means for the nearly 400 people on Florida’s death row, the second-largest in the country, trailing only California’s. The key question is whether the Supreme Court’s ruling scuttles all of these existing death sentences — or if, as state officials maintain, it was not retroactive.

Supreme Court Justice Breyer: California embodies the death penalty’s ‘fundamental defects’

In an amicus brief filed Tuesday, a collection of high-profile legal figures and groups in Florida say the answer is clear to them. They argue in the 33-page brief submitted to the Florida Supreme Court that “a straightforward application” of the state’s sentencing statute means death-row inmates “are entitled to have their death sentences replaced by sentences of life without parole.”

According to their brief, state law requires a wholesale jettisoning of the death sentences, rather than “a piecemeal, case-by-case review.”

The statute they are citing states that if “the death penalty in a capital felony is held to be unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court … the court shall sentence such person to life imprisonment.”

State authorities, though, say that since the death penalty itself was not deemed unconstitutional, the statute does not apply here.

Instead, the Supreme Court “struck a portion of the [sentencing] statute as a means of imposing a constitutional sentence,” Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi wrote in a court filing earlier this year. Bondi (R) argued that the state law did not intend to reduce all death sentences to life sentences “any time any aspect of the statute is held to be unconstitutional.”

These filings were in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of killing his co-worker at a Popeyes restaurant in Penscaola, Fla.

Florida’s revamped structure for death sentences

Oral arguments are scheduled to be heard Thursday in Hurst’s case as the Florida Supreme Court weighs what to do with the sentencing question. While the state Supreme Court had upheld a prior death sentence for Hurst, he is now arguing that since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving his case, his death sentence should be cleared out.

Florida’s death penalty effectively ground to a halt after the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hurst v. Florida case, which prompted lawmakers to revamp their sentencing statutes. The new law says that at least 10 jurors have to recommend a death sentence, and it scraps the old language saying that a judge could determine the sentence “notwithstanding the recommendation of a majority of the jury.”

Death sentences are increasingly rare across the country, but Florida remains one of the most active practitioners. The state is one of only three that have carried out an execution in each of the past five years (along with Texas — which, like Florida, has carried out an execution this year — and Oklahoma, where executions have been on hold since last fall).

While the future for Florida’s death sentences remains unclear, there is also uncertainty in Alabama, a state that allows judges to overrule jury recommendations. After the Florida ruling, an Alabama inmate unsuccessfully argued that his state’s system was “virtually identical” to the Florida system, but the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeals and he was executed.

A judge in Alabama issued a limited ruling in March saying that the state’s death sentences were unconstitutional. On Monday, the Supreme Court said it was reversing its decision earlier this year to reject an Alabama inmate’s request to review a lower court’s ruling in his case. The justices said they were remanding the case to a criminal appeals court in Alabama “for further consideration in light of Hurst v. Florida.”

The Florida group filing an amicus brief this week in the Hurst case included three former chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court, one of whom was a prosecutor and another who served as a federal appeals judge before becoming part of the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal at The Hague; a former state representative; another former prosecutor; and former presidents of the American Bar Association. They were joined by a statewide organization representing criminal defense lawyers and two groups aiming to help defense lawyers in death-penalty cases.

Further reading:

Supreme Court Justice Breyer said he thinks California’s delay-riddled death penalty system embodies ‘fundamental defects’ with capital punishment

The U.S. is executing fewer and fewer inmates

Florida inmate asks for the electric chair, rather than lethal injection

Americans agree that innocent people can be put to death under the current system

‘It was fundamentally unfair.’ A prosecutor apologizes for his role in putting an innocent man on death row