Court strikes down Florida's death penalty sentencing scheme
The Florida Supreme Court ruled Friday that Florida’s revamped death penalty law was unconstitutional, declaring that death sentences must be determined by a unanimous jury and triggering the potential re-sentencing of hundreds of inmates on death row.
In a 5-2 ruling, the court ordered Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature to try again to rewrite the law struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in January which allowed for 10 members of a 12-member jury to impose a death sentence. The court went beyond imposing a unanimous jury, it also raised the bar in capital cases by declaring that juries, not judges, must unanimously agree on all components of the evidence relating to the death sentence.
“We...hold, based on Florida’s requirement for unanimity in jury verdicts, and under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, that in order for the trial court to impose a sentence of death, the jury’s recommended sentence of death must be unanimous,” the court majority wrote. Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented, saying the court did not have the authority to reject the law.
The immediate effect of the ruling is that more than 40 inmates who have not completed their death penalty review must be given a new sentencing trial, any capital cases pending in Florida must be decided by a unanimous jury for the first time since the death penalty was restored in Florida in 1972, and the 385 inmates now on death row have a new legal avenue to seek another sentencing trial.
“Today’s decisions will mean that all defendants on Florida’s death row whose cases are pending on direct appeal will be entitled to new sentencing hearings unless the state can prove its heavy burden of showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the error in their cases would not have affected the jury verdicts in capital sentencing,’’ said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, which joined in the case.
Stephen Harper, of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at the Florida International School of Law, said the ruling “will clearly limit the number of cases in which prosecutors seek death because the burden of proof is harder and stronger.”
This is the second time this year that Florida’s death penalty law has been held unconstitutional. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the state’s death penalty law that allowed a judge to overrule a jury verdict and impose a death sentence. The court said that in that case, known as Hurst v. Florida, that Florida’s system was a violation of a defendant’s right to a jury trial.
Florida lawmakers responded by rewriting the state law, replacing the judge’s override and requiring a 10-12 vote of a jury to send someone to death. The law required that juries in future capital cases must agree unanimously and in writing on the aggravating factors before imposing a death sentence.
The state then argued in court that the Hurst case did not require a unanimous jury conclusion. The court rejected the state’s argument, concluding that “the imposition of a death sentence in Florida has in the past required, and continues to require, additional fact finding that now must be conducted by the jury.”
In addition to ruling that a death sentence must be agreed to by a unanimous jury, it also held that the elements of the crime and the mitigating factors leading up to the death penalty must be reviewed and judged by a unanimous jury.
“Thus, we hold that in addition to unanimously finding the existence of any aggravating factor, the jury must also unanimously find that the aggravating factors are sufficient for the imposition of death and unanimously find that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigation before a sentence of death may be considered by the judge,” the court said.
The opinion was written by Justices Jorge Labarga, Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. Justices Pariente and Lewis concurred but wrote separate opinions. Justice James E.C. Perry concurred in part and dissented in part in a separate opinion.
The court ruled that a new sentencing trial must be conducted for Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of the 1998 murder of Cynthia Lee Harrison, a co-worker at a restaurant in Escambia County. He was sentenced to death in 2000 and had not exhausted his appeals through the court system. The Florida Supreme Court ordered Hurst re-sentenced and, in 2012, a second jury recommended a death sentence by a 7-to-5 vote in 2012. The judge then independently considered the evidence and concluded that Hurst should be executed.
In the opinion written for the federal court by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court concluded: "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough."
Capital punishment in Florida has been on hold since the federal ruling was issued on Jan. 12 and the governor indefinitely delayed executions of inmates Michael Lambrix and Mark Asay as a result.
Attorney General Pam Bondi, the governor, and Senate leaders had no immediate comment on the ruling and said their lawyers were reviewing it.
Bondi’s office has said that as many as 43 Death Row inmates could get life sentences without parole or new sentencing hearings as a result of the Hurst decision. Those 43 inmates are those who are entitled to automatic post-Hurst reviews of their cases under the state Constitution. Of those cases currently before the court, Bondi’s office argued, death sentences should be carried out.
Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran said he was “profoundly disappointed” in the ruling.
"This decision is indicative of a court that comes to a conclusion, then seeks a judicial pathway, however tortured, to achieve its desired result,’’ he said in a statement. “That is antithetical to the rule of law and dangerous for our state."
Friday's ruling was met with anger by the family of Yvette Fariñas, a Miami waitress who was brutally murdered by a handyman named Rafael Andres in 2005. He beat and stabbed her, and used a rice-cooker cord to strangle her before setting her efficiency ablaze in a robbery. At his 2014 trial, jurors also heard that he had previously served prison time for murdering another woman in the mid-1980s.
At his trial in 2014, jurors voted 9-3 to put Andres to death. Fariñas mother on Friday said she believes the nine votes were more than enough to condemn her daughter's killer to execution.
"This is like giving him a pardon," mother Luisa Moya said of Friday's ruling that may give him a shot at a new sentencing. "He didn't pardon my daughter. He doesn't belong on this earth. He's a cold-blooded killer."
Legal experts were divided over the question of how far the Hurst ruling will affect inmates currently on death row. Some concluded that all will be eligible for another sentencing trial and others said it may only apply on a case-by-case basis.
The Florida Supreme Court is expected to decide whether the Hurst decision requires the state to conduct new sentencing trials, commute sentences to life, or allow the inmates to be executed if they were sentenced by non-unanimous juries when it decides the appeals of both Lambrix and Asay’s cases.
“No one now on death row got a death sentence under the criteria the Florida Supreme Court says are required, therefore they all have good petitions,’’ said Eric M. Freedman, a constitutional law professor at Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University. “Florida will have to pass a new statute and get its act together and put the jury at the center of the process and, if they want to do the job right, make the jury the final arbiter as it is in every other state except Alabama.’’
Karen Gottlieb, also of FIU's Florida Center for Capital Representation, said the impact on current death row inmates will be decide by the courts on a case-by-base basis, based on whether inmates previously sentenced to death without a unanimous verdict faced "harmless error beyond a reasonable doubt."
How that will be applied may depend on what the Florida Supreme Court decides in the Asay and Lambrix appeals, she said. "There are so many questions left unanswered."
In a separate ruling in the case of Perry vs. Florida, also issued Friday, the Florida Supreme Court found the new statute cannot apply to cases still pending in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. The ruling will require lawmakers to reconvene to rewrite the law before any death sentences are complete.
Until the Legislature acts, however, courts may be in legal limbo about whether to go forward with death sentencing cases, said Scott Sundby, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law.
“The statute as written was struck down as unconstitutional so it’s unclear how a judge would have the authority to require a unanimous verdict if they don’t have the statutory authority to ask for that,’’ Sundby said.
Sunby also said he “could not disagree more strongly” with Corcoran’s comments.
“This is far from subverting the will of the people,’’ he said. “In fact, it helped the people because otherwise we would have had a statute under which the death sentence would have been sought for years and challenges and appeals would continue until it was ruled unconstitutional. The Florida Supreme Court, by acting now, saved the Florida taxpayers a lot of money.”
Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said the group is still analyzing the court's ruling and will meet Monday to discuss it in detail.
"We enforce the laws, the Legislature writes the laws and the Supreme Court interprets the laws," Jacobs said. "So we will be talking and meeting on Monday to try to come up with some sort of road map of where we go from here based on this opinion."
The FPAA, which represents state attorneys, opposed unanimous juries when state legislators were re-writing death penalty laws this spring, but Jacobs said he did not yet know what changes the group planned to support in the coming legislative session.
Terry Lenamon, a Miami defense attorney who specializes in death penalty cases said the ruling is “a historic decision that will change not only the face of the death penalty litigation in Florida but have a wide reaching impact on past, present and future of the death penalty.”