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Florida Supreme Court says state’s new death penalty law is unconstitutional

Protesters against the death penalty gather near the Florida State Prison before an execution in June 2014. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Just seven months after Florida revamped its death penalty law, the state’s Supreme Court struck down the new statute as unconstitutional because it does not require juries to be unanimous about handing down the sentences.

With a pair of rulings Friday, the Florida Supreme Court further added to the uncertainty surrounding the death penalty in the state, one of the country’s leading practitioners of capital punishment and home to the second-biggest death-row population nationwide. Florida’s death penalty has been in flux this year thanks to court rulings that left unclear what will happen to the nearly 400 inmates still on the state’s death row.

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision declaring the new measure unconstitutional also marks the second time this year that a court has struck down the state’s death-sentencing statute. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state’s old law as unconstitutional in January because it allowed judges, not juries, to make the final decision about imposing capital sentences.

In response to the high court’s ruling, Florida enacted a new measure in March that said jurors must unanimously agree that a case involves at least one aggravating circumstance necessary to warrant a death sentence. The new death-penalty law also increased the number of jurors needed to approve a death sentence, pushing it to 10 jurors from the seven previously required.

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The ruling Friday came in a case brought by Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of the 1998 murder of Cynthia Lee Harrison, his co-worker at a Popeyes fast-food restaurant in Pensacola. He also brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, leading to the justices striking down Florida’s death penalty earlier this year in Hurst v. Florida.

The justices wrote in a 5-to-2 ruling that they “conclude that the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury mandates that under Florida’s capital sentencing scheme, the jury — not the judge — must be the finder of every fact, and thus every element, necessary for the imposition of the death penalty,”

They also said that if lawmakers change the statute to require unanimous juries to agree on death sentences, this could keep capital punishment afloat in the state and would “dispel most, if not all, doubts about the future validity and long-term viability of the death penalty in Florida.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Charles T. Canady, joined by Justice Ricky Polston, said the other justices “fundamentally” misunderstood the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in January and said they are “unnecessarily disrupting the administration of the death penalty in Florida.”

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Hurst’s death sentence was vacated Friday by the court and his case remanded for a new penalty phase. However, while Hurst had argued he should automatically be given a life sentence based on the higher court’s January ruling, the Florida Supreme Court disagreed with that on Friday.

A group of high-profile legal figures and organizations in Florida — including three former chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court — argued that people sentenced under the old statute should be resentenced to life in prison. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s (R) office has argued against this and said that the higher court’s ruling only affected “a portion” of the sentencing statute, rather than the entire death penalty.

Hurst and the advocacy group had pointed to a Florida law stating that people on death row must be given life sentences if the death penalty is deemed to be unconstitutional. The Florida Supreme Court, siding with state officials, said the law didn’t apply to Hurst because the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling did not broadly strike down the death penalty itself.

In addition, the Florida Supreme Court handed down another ruling regarding the state’s new death penalty law on Friday — this one focusing on what happens to pending cases where the death penalty might be sought.

In that case, Perry v. Florida, the justices declared that the updated death penalty statute could not be constitutionally applied to such prosecutions because it does not require unanimous juries.

A spokesman for Bondi said her office was still looking over the ruling handed down Friday.

“We are reviewing the Florida Supreme Court ruling, but in the meantime Florida juries must make unanimous decisions in capital cases as to the appropriateness of the death penalty,” the spokesman said.

The office of Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) was also reviewing the ruling, a spokeswoman said Friday afternoon.

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“Florida, with its non-unanimous jury requirement, has seen more death sentences reversed than any other state,” Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said in a statement. “Racial disparities, over-zealous prosecutors and a lack of resources for defense counsel continue to plague death penalty cases. … But the unanimity issue was just one aspect of a crumbling death penalty system which is getting harder every day to justify.”

The decisions in Florida came as the death penalty nationwide continues to decline, with fewer executions and death sentences from coast to coast.

While some states have struggled to obtain the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections, others have put executions on hold because of court rulings or because of ongoing reviews prompted by mistakes in their processes. And a poll recently found that for the first time in more than four decades, American support for the death penalty dropped below 50 percent.

Even as a declining number of states carry out executions, Florida is among the last bastions of capital punishment. Florida has carried out at least one execution each year since 2008, joining only Texas on that list, according to records kept by the Death Penalty Information Center. The state’s death row is also larger than that of any state other than California, which has not carried out an execution since 2006.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding Florida in January, questions have arisen about whether it was retroactive and would lead to hundreds of death-row inmates receiving life sentences. During a hearing in the Hurst case in May, some of Florida’s justices expressed concerns about whether the state’s rewritten sentencing statute provided constitutional protections to people facing potential death sentences.

“The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that jury recommendations for the death penalty must be unanimous is a long overdue recognition of the state’s fatally flawed capital punishment regime,” Mary Anne Franks, a professor with the University of Miami School of Law, said in a statement Friday.

The uncertainty had extended into Alabama, which allows judges to overrule jury recommendations. An inmate there had argued earlier this year that Alabama’s system was “virtually identical” to the one in Florida, but the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeals and he was executed in January.

Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled last month that the state’s death-penalty system was constitutional and unaffected by the ruling that struck down Florida’s old statute earlier this year.

This story, first published at 12:42 p.m., has been updated multiple times. 

Further reading:

Alabama Supreme Court says state’s death penalty system is constitutional

Ohio to resume executions after three-year hiatus

Florida revamped its death penalty statute after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling

Executions continue to dwindle nationwide