Tag Archives: orders

Florida Supreme Court rules against death penalty

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.”

Anti-gay Kentucky clerk found in contempt, taken into custody

A county clerk in Kentucky who refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on religious grounds was found in contempt of court by a U.S. federal judge on Sept. 3 and taken into custody.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis was led away by U.S. marshals.

“The court doesn’t do this lightly,” District Court Judge David Bunning said in ordering she be taken into custody.

Davis has refused to issue licenses to any couples, gay or straight, since the U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry under the U.S. Constitution, citing her religious beliefs.

She told the judge, “God’s moral law conflicts with my job duties. You can’t be separated from something that’s in your heart and in your soul.”

Bunning told Davis’ deputies in the clerk’s office that they could issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and that if they refused to comply with the law, they too could be held in contempt.

Before the hearing, about 200 demonstrators on both sides gathered outside the courthouse, some chanting slogans and many holding signs.

“Government employees swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled protects the fundamental right of all Americans to marry the person they love,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group. “Since then, all across the nation, thousands of LGBT couples have rejoiced in marriage without incident. As a government employee, Kim Davis certainly has a right to her personal views, but she is not above the law or the principles enshrined in our Constitution.”

Davis, who was elected to the post and succeeded her mother in the office, is represented by the ultra-rightwing Liberty Counsel, which has a long history of defending anti-gay policies and actions.

In a statement released after the court hearing on Sept. 3, Liberty Counsel founder and attorney Mat Staver said, “Kim Davis is a woman of strong faith. She never sought to be in this position. She would rather not be in this predicament. But here she is. All she asks is to be true to God and her conscience. And the tragedy is that there are simple ways to accommodate her convictions. Just remove her name from the marriage licenses. That’s all she has asked from the beginning.”

Staver added, “Today’s event swill escalate this debate to a new level.”

Staver has suggested that the U.S. government allow the creation of “sanctuary cities” where same-sex couples are not allowed to marry.

3 states battle to keep same-sex marriage bans

Three states are continuing their legal fight against same-sex marriage, despite rulings from federal appeals courts that oversee those states that concluded gay and lesbian couples have the right to marry.

Even as officials in other states have abandoned defense of gay marriage bans, Kansas, Montana and South Carolina are refusing to allow same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses without a court order directing them to do so. It could be another month or more before the matter is settled.

In a political campaign debate earlier this week, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback vowed to defend his state’s constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. A federal court hearing is scheduled for Friday was postponed.

There seems little doubt that U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree ultimately will set aside the state’s gay marriage ban. That’s because the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, encompassing Kansas and five other states, has said a state may not deny a marriage license to two people of the same sex.

“He is absolutely bound and has to make that decision,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign.

The same requirement holds true for federal judges who are hearing same-sex marriage lawsuits in Montana and South Carolina.

John Eastman, chairman of the anti-gay marriage National Organization for Marriage, agreed with Warbelow that federal judges almost certainly will rule to allow same-sex marriages. But Eastman urged state officials to continue to put up a legal fight until the Supreme Court decides the issue one way or the other.

“Until the Supreme Court decides it, this remains a viable option,” Eastman said.

State officials in Colorado, North Carolina and West Virginia chose a different path. They helped speed the process for legalizing gay marriage in their states when they announced they would no longer defend their state laws in the aftermath of the appeals court rulings.

The latest wave of court rulings that has made same-sex marriage legal in 32 states and the District of Columbia began with the unexpected decision by the Supreme Court on Oct. 6 to reject appeals by five states hoping to keep their bans in place.

The high court’s refusal to step in affected appeals courts in Chicago, Denver and Richmond, Virginia, which in turn oversee 11 states that did not previously allow same-sex couples to marry. Since the justices’ terse order, same-sex couples have been able to marry in nine of those 11 states, with Wyoming on Tuesday becoming the latest to permit it. Only Kansas and South Carolina have not followed suit.

A day after the Supreme Court action, the federal appeals court in San Francisco struck down gay marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada in a ruling that also appeared to apply to Alaska, Arizona and Montana. Since then, federal judges in Alaska and Arizona quickly ruled on pending marriage lawsuits. But in Montana, a federal judge has set a hearing in a marriage challenge for Nov. 20.

No court date has been set for South Carolina, where Attorney General Alan Wilson has said he will continue to defend state marriage law and predicted a final ruling could be months away.

The timing of court action varies from judge to judge, depending on what other matters are before the court and how much say the judge wants each side to have, Warbelow said.

In North Carolina, U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. acted on his own to strike down the state ban after the Richmond-based appeals court ruling became final.

James Esseks, leader of the American Civil Liberties Union’s same-sex marriage efforts, said Wilson and other officials have no excuse to keep up their fight. “The circuit law is what it is. They need a little push and we’ll give it to them,” Esseks said.