Editorial: Call time out on Florida executions, capital cases

After this week's U.S. Supreme Court opinion that struck down Florida's sentencing system for death penalty cases, the only responsible course is to suspend executions and capital trials until the courts and state officials decide on a lawful way forward. SCOTT KEELER    |   Times
After this week's U.S. Supreme Court opinion that struck down Florida's sentencing system for death penalty cases, the only responsible course is to suspend executions and capital trials until the courts and state officials decide on a lawful way forward.SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published January 15 2016
Updated January 15 2016

This week's U.S. Supreme Court opinion that struck down Florida's sentencing system for death penalty cases has created wholesale uncertainty for judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and those convicted and accused of capital crimes. With no clear direction and as state legislators fumble to find a fix, the only responsible course is to suspend executions and capital trials until the courts and state officials decide on a lawful way forward.

The court found Florida's death penalty sentencing process was unconstitutional because it vests final authority in a judge rather than a jury. Under state law, judges give "great weight" to a jury's recommendation in a death penalty case. But the trial judge ultimately decides. In its 8-1 opinion, the court cited a 2002 case, Ring vs. Arizona, which established that juries and not judges shall decide the fate of defendants in capital cases. The court expressly invalidated two cases that the Florida courts have used to uphold the state's sentencing system.

There is no way around it. The sentencing process that exists in Florida is now unconstitutional and violates due process. And while the court's decision came in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of killing a co-worker at a Pensacola restaurant in 1998, the ruling could impact dozens if not hundreds of pending trials or appeals. Public defenders across the state are calling for a halt to executions and death penalty cases, and prosecutors are complaining they are uncertain how to proceed at trial. The Florida Supreme Court has also asked the state and lawyers for Michael Ray Lambrix, scheduled to be executed Feb. 11 for the 1983 murders of two people in South Florida, to explain why the Hurst decision should not retroactively apply to his case. Oral arguments are scheduled for Feb. 2.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, in a response filed Thursday, said the Hurst decision should not apply, and Lambrix's attorneys have until Wednesday to respond. On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court refused Lambrix's request for a stay of execution. But with the legalities unsettled, Florida should put a hold to executions, and state attorneys should refrain from prosecuting death penalty cases. There is no mulligan if the state gets it wrong.

Gov. Rick Scott has offered no way forward. Bondi said this week the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion should be examined on a case-by-case basis, but she also promised to work with legislators rewriting death penalty sentencing statutes to ensure they would pass constitutional muster. This will be an evolving issue for the courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys, as the Florida Supreme Court acknowledged by its order seeking guidance in the Lambrix case.

Some lawmakers have called for requiring unanimous jury recommendations on death sentences. Florida is the only state where a jury can call for death with by a simple majority vote. The U.S. Supreme Court did not address that issue, focusing only on the judge's authority exceeding the jury's. Efforts to overhaul the system to comply with the court's opinion should not be rushed by death warrants on the governor's desk. Florida should put a hold on executions and capital cases until it charts a legal remedy for complying with the court's decision.

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