Florida Supreme Court tries to sort out death penalty law

Published June 7 2016
Updated June 8 2016

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in a case focused on whether the state's new death penalty law is constitutional, and, if so, whether it applies to cases already in the pipeline when the law passed in March.

Tuesday's hearing was the latest in the court's months-long scrutiny prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January that struck down Florida's death-penalty sentencing process because it unconstitutionally gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.

But the arguments Tuesday in the case of Larry Darnell Perry, who was convicted in the 2013 murder of his infant son, did little to clear up the murky situation surrounding the January ruling, in a case known as Hurst vs. Florida, or the new law, hurriedly crafted by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Rick Scott in response to the decision.

"Clearly at this stage in our jurisprudence, we want to make sure that the statute is construed in a constitutional manner so that we don't have another 15 years of death penalty — if the state wants the death penalty, which apparently it does — in flux," Justice Barbara Pariente said.

Under Florida's old law, jurors by a simple majority could recommend the death penalty. Judges would then make findings of fact that "sufficient" aggravating factors, not outweighed by mitigating circumstances, existed for the death sentence to be imposed.

That system was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in an 8-1 ruling.

Florida's new law requires juries to unanimously determine "the existence of at least one aggravating factor" before defendants can be eligible for death sentences. The law also requires at least 10 jurors to recommend the death penalty in order for the sentence to be imposed.

Of nearly three dozen states that have the death penalty, Florida is one of just three — including Alabama and Delaware — that do not require unanimous recommendations for a sentence of death.

The lack of a unanimous recommendation was the focus of much of Tuesday's hearing in the Perry case.

Because Florida's Constitution requires that jury verdicts be unanimous for convictions, defense lawyers have argued that the death penalty should require a unanimous jury recommendation. Prosecutors, including Attorney General Pam Bondi's office, disagree.

Since the Jan. 12 Hurst ruling, Florida's high court indefinitely put on hold two executions and heard arguments in more than a dozen death penalty cases, repeatedly asking lawyers on both sides about the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Florida court has yet to rule on whether the Hurst decision should be applied retroactively to all, or even some, of Florida's 390 death row inmates.

Perry's case, meanwhile, hinges on whether the new law should apply to defendants whose prosecutions were under way when the new law went into effect.

Adding more pressure to the justices, lower courts have delayed hearings or decisions in death penalty cases while waiting for Florida Supreme Court to rule.

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