The fate of convicted killers on Florida’s death row — as well as the fate of people awaiting trial for murder — was put in limbo by a pair of sweeping rulings issued by the Florida Supreme Court.
In two linked cases — each decided by a 5-2 split — the court ruled that death sentences must require a unanimous jury and struck down a newly enacted law that allowed a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 of 12 jurors recommended it.
“Requiring a unanimous jury recommendation before death may be imposed … is a critical step toward ensuring that Florida will continue to have a constitutional and viable death penalty law, which is surely the intent of the Legislature,” the court stated in one of two rulings. “This requirement will dispel most, if not all, doubts about the future validity and long-term viability of the death penalty in Florida.”
At the same time the court ordered a unanimous jury decision, it also opened the door to inmates already on death row getting their sentences reduced.
Justices concluded that Timothy Lee Hurst — who was convicted of killing a co-worker at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant with a box-cutter in 1998 — deserves a new sentencing hearing.
A jury had divided 7-5 over whether Hurst deserved the death penalty, but a judge imposed the sentence. The state Supreme Court initially upheld his sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court this past January declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision.
That ruling led the state to halt two pending executions and state legislators rushed to overhaul the law. They gave more sway to juries, including prohibiting a judge from imposing the death penalty if the jury recommended life in prison.
The Republican-controlled Legislature, however, rejected calls to require a unanimous decision from a jury, settling instead for a supermajority of 10 jurors. Prosecutors were strongly opposed to requiring a unanimous jury decision, pointing out that some of the state’s most notorious criminals including serial killer Ted Bundy did not receive a unanimous jury recommendation. An analysis prepared for the Legislature showed that only 21 percent of death penalty sentences handed down over the past 15 years were recommended unanimously.
But a majority of justices disagreed, and Justice Barbara Pariente noted that Florida was one of the few remaining states in the nation that did not require a unanimous jury decision. She said the only way to keep the death penalty “constitutionally sound” was to require a unanimous decision.
Justice Charles Canady, in a strong dissenting opinion, contended that the majority went far beyond what was required by the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Justices in their ruling did reject a request that Hurst’s sentence be reduced to life in prison, but they said that because of the new requirement, he deserved to have a jury reconsider his sentence. That decision could lead other death row inmates to ask for the same consideration.
David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor, said that “based on the way that the opinion is written and the reasoning of the Justices, it would appear that all death penalty sentences imposed in Florida require a new sentencing hearing.” Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said that, at the least, the 43 inmates whose death penalty cases are still on direct appeal deserve to be resentenced.
The sweeping decision got a muted response from Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose offices said they were reviewing it.
Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi’s office, said that ongoing murder cases could proceed as long as juries were instructed that a unanimous decision was required. But Marty McClain, a long-standing death penalty attorney who filed a legal brief in one of the cases, contended it would be a risky move for prosecutors to proceed until the Legislature acts.
Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol for a one-day organizational session in November, but they are not scheduled to hold a regular session until March.
Incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran blasted the ruling and said it was an ongoing effort to “subvert the will of the people.”
“This decision is indicative of a court that comes to a conclusion, then seeks a judicial pathway, however tortured, to achieve its desired result,” said Corcoran, a Republican from Land O’ Lakes. “That is antithetical to the rule of law and dangerous for our state.”