Florida Supreme Court says unanimous jury not needed for death penalty in major reversal

“Death is indeed different,” wrote the lone dissenting justice. “This Court has taken a giant step backward."
The Florida Supreme Court, Wednesday, May 1, 2019.
The Florida Supreme Court, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jan. 23, 2020|Updated Jan. 24, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — In a stunning reversal of a previous decision, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a unanimous jury should not be required to sentence someone to death. Federal law, and every state that has the death penalty except Alabama, require unanimous juries for the death penalty, rather than a simple majority.

Florida law used to only require that a majority of the jury make a recommendation to the judge on whether to sentence a defendant to die. The judge then issues a final ruling based on that recommendation. But after a decision by the Florida Supreme Court in 2016 struck down that model in a case called Hurst vs. State, the Legislature changed its law to mandate a unanimous jury.

But Thursday’s ruling opens the door for state lawmakers, if they wish, to return Florida to one of the few states that don’t require a unanimous jury to impose the death penalty.

“It is no small matter for one Court to conclude that a predecessor Court has clearly erred,” the majority opinion of four justices states. But, “in this case we cannot escape the conclusion that ... our Court in Hurst vs. State got it wrong.”

In the majority opinion, the justices wrote that their own court’s prior decision was made in error, because the justices at the time had misinterpreted a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found Florida’s death sentencing process unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling did not, in fact, mean that a jury had to unanimously sentence a person to death, they wrote. Rather, that court only said that a jury had to unanimously find that a defendant was eligible for the death penalty, because of so-called “aggravating factors,” such as if the crime was “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” or was committed against a child under 12.

But the final decision of whether a defendant should be sentenced to die does not require unanimity, Florida’s highest court said.

What does this decision mean?

For one, it means the man, Mark Anthony Poole, who brought this case to the Supreme Court after he was sentenced to death with only the majority of a jury, will once again get the death penalty, after his sentence was previously vacated. He has been convicted of first degree murder, attempted first degree murder, sexual battery, armed burglary and armed robbery.

There are 157 death row cases where the person was eligible for a new sentence under the 2016 ruling. Since then, those cases have been going through various stages of re-sentencing, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.

Thursday’s decision could strip some of those prisoners of rights they were promised by the previous ruling, said Robert Dunham, executive director for the center, which is nonpartisan.

“It is flatly unconstitutional to say we have given somebody the right to have a unanimous jury determine their sentence — and if they didn’t have it, their death sentence is overturned — and now pull that rug out from under them,” Dunham said. “If the Florida Supreme Court intends to execute individuals whose entitlement to a new sentencing hearing had previously been established by the law then this court has just abandoned the rule of law.”

In a blistering dissent, Justice Jorge Labarga said the decision by the majority will return Florida to its status as “an absolute outlier." He was the lone dissent. There are currently only five justices on Florida’s Supreme Court, because two of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ three appointments were recently promoted to federal courts.

“In the strongest possible terms, I dissent,” Labarga wrote. “Death is indeed different. When the government metes out the ultimate sanction, it must do so narrowly and in response to the most aggravated and least mitigated of murders. ... this Court has taken a giant step backward and removed a significant safeguard for the just application of the death penalty in Florida."

Labarga also noted that Florida “holds the shameful national title as the state with the most death row exonerations” — all the more reason to keep the unanimous jury safeguard in place. Twenty-nine people on death row in Florida have been exonerated since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Responding to Labarga’s dissent, Justice Alan Lawson wrote that this decision does not change Florida’s state law, which requires the unanimous jury.

“The majority today decides constitutional questions, not political ones,” Lawson wrote. “If the Florida Legislature considers changing (the law) to eliminate the requirement for a unanimous jury recommendation before a sentence of death can be imposed, the fact that this legislative change would make Florida an ‘outlier’ will surely be considered in the ensuing political debate.”

But whether lawmakers will respond in any way to the ruling remains unclear.

Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who is next in line to be House Speaker, said that because this ruling doesn’t impact current state law, the Legislature has time to assess how they’d like to respond. He said they would “consider” revisiting the law requiring unanimous juries.

“I don’t find it shocking at all. The Hurst decision they overturned lacked, in my view, solid legal rationale,” said Sprowls, a former assistant state attorney. “As far as what we’ll do in the Legislature in wake of this decision, we’ll consider what the decision means and our steps moving forward.”