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Florida Supreme Court says hundreds of death row inmates may get new sentences and avoid execution

Death penalty opponents demonstrating against an execution in Florida in 2014. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The Florida Supreme Court said Thursday that some death-row prisoners there may be able to seek new sentences, a decision that could impact hundreds of inmates and ends months of uncertainty surrounding capital punishment in one of the country’s leading death penalty states.

While the court’s ruling means that many inmates could potentially avoid execution, many others on the state’s death row — the second-largest in the country, trailing only California — were deemed ineligible for this resentencing in a separate ruling Thursday.

The decisions Thursday, along with doubt that has suffused Florida’s death penalty for most of this year, stemmed from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January striking down the state’s death sentencing scheme as unconstitutional.

That ruling effectively froze the death penalty in Florida, contributing to a nationwide plunge in executions. But the ruling left unsaid whether it was retroactive and did not specify what it meant for the nearly 400 inmates on the state’s death row.

Executions in the United States just fell to a 25-year low

In a pair of rulings Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court offered its clearest answers yet to that question. The justices said that the January decision will not apply retroactively to death sentences finalized before a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving capital sentences in Arizona.

But in another opinion, the Florida Supreme Court said the ruling striking down Florida’s death penalty would apply retroactively to any inmates whose sentences were finalized after that 2002 case. That could lead to resentencing for potentially more than 200 inmates, according to the Florida Supreme Court’s estimate, a number that would exceed the entire death row populations in most states.

The rulings Thursday hinged on the U.S. Supreme Court’s January decision in Hurst v. Florida, which saw the justices strike down the state’s sentencing scheme because it gave too much power to judges, rather than juries. In the Hurst ruling, the justices determined that Florida’s system violated the Sixth Amendment, pointing to the 2002 determination the high court made in the case Ring v. Arizona, which found fault with a system that let a judge’s sentencing determination outweigh that of a jury.

Florida’s death penalty was deemed unconstitutional, so lawmakers rewrote it — and it was struck down again

In its new rulings Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court does not question the constitutionality of the death penalty. The justices also stress that their rulings will not impact the guilty verdicts that led to the death sentences, writing in one opinion that “no defendant will receive a new guilt phase or be released from prison while a new penalty takes place.”

“The difference is not guilt or innocence but, instead, life or death,” the opinion states.

Inmates eligible to try to seek new sentences will not all obtain them, nor are all guaranteed to have new penalty phases, the same ruling notes.

It was not immediately clear the exact number of inmates who would be eligible for a resentencing hearing under the rulings Thursday, but the Florida Supreme Court estimated in one of its rulings that a little more than half of the state’s death row had sentences finalized after the Ring decision in 2002.

Florida had been weighing what to do with nearly 400 death row inmates

“The upshot is that between 150 and 200 people will need to be resentenced, opening old wounds and costing taxpayers millions of dollars,” Robert Smith, director of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School, said in a statement. “You can thank Florida’s prosecutors for this situation.”

The rulings capped off what has been a chaotic year for Florida’s death penalty. In January, Florida carried out the country’s first execution of the year, a lethal injection that took place just days before the Supreme Court struck down the state’s death penalty system.

Florida lawmakers quickly revamped the state’s law in March to better adhere to the Supreme Court’s ruling and try to resume executions, but the Florida Supreme Court struck down the new law in October, saying that it was unconstitutional because juries were not required to be unanimous about sentences.

The offices of Gov. Rick Scott (R) and Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) both said they were reviewing the Florida Supreme Court’s latest rulings.

The justices ruled Thursday that Hurst must apply retroactively in the case of John F. Mosley, a 52-year-old on death row for killing his infant son in 2004. (Mosley was also sentenced to life in prison for killing his girlfriend in the same episode.) They vacated Mosley’s death sentence and remanded the case for a new penalty phase.

In a partial concurrence and partial dissent, Justice Charles T. Canady, joined by Justice Ricky Polston, pilloried the decision to vacate Mosley’s death sentence. Canady wrote that the ruling “unjustifiably plunges the administration of the death penalty in Florida into turmoil that will undoubtedly extend for years.”

Canady, who has been mentioned by President-elect Trump as a possible U.S. Supreme Court nominee, was also joined by Polston when he dissented from the Florida Supreme Court ruling striking down the state’s rewritten death penalty law in October.

Justice James E.C. Perry, who retires from the court later this month, also concurred in part and dissented in part, arguing that Mosley’s death sentence should be vacated and automatically changed to a life sentence.

This stance was offered earlier this year in an amicus brief filed by a high-profile group that included three former chief justices of the state’s Supreme Court, who had pointed to a state statute requiring that death sentences must be replaced by life sentences if “the death penalty in a capital felony is held to be unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court.” Bondi, the attorney general, argued in court filings that the Supreme Court had only “struck a portion” of the statute, rather than the death penalty itself.

The justices ruled in the case of Mark James Asay, 52 — who was sentenced to death for two killings in 1987 — that he was not eligible for resentencing under Hurst because his sentence was final before the Ring decision was issued in 2002. They also denied other petitions Asay made and lifted a stay of execution they issued in his case earlier this year. The sharply divided court was particularly vocal about this case, with four justices filing additional opinions.

In a third ruling issued Thursday, the justices also determined that a death sentence handed down in another case violated Hurst. As a result, they vacated that death sentence and remanded it to a trial court for a new penalty phase.

Further reading:

Florida Supreme Court halts scheduled execution after debate over state’s death penalty

The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments about what to do post-Hurst earlier this year

Why the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty in the first place

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