Florida Supreme Court reverses itself again on death penalty legal issue

Florida’s Supreme Court ruled 4-1 that a Miami man was still eligible for death row even though the same court ruled only years ago that those deemed intellectually disabled shouldn’t be executed.
The Florida Supreme Court.
The Florida Supreme Court. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published May 21, 2020|Updated May 21, 2020

MIAMI — Harry Franklin Phillips, a convict who shot a Miami parole officer to death in 1982, was hoping to get his death sentence reversed by convincing the courts that he is intellectually disabled.

But the Florida Supreme Court, backtracking on its own case decided only years ago, on Thursday ruled that Phillips isn’t ineligible, the court’s latest reversal in how sentences in major cases are meted out.

The court ruled that an earlier decision allowed for the broadening of who can be deemed intellectually disabled — generally someone with an IQ of 70 or less — does not apply “retroactively” to older cases such as Phillips’.

How many Death Row inmates the decision could affect was not clear on Thursday.

The court ruled 4-1. The only dissenter was Justice Jorge Labarga.

“Yet again, this Court has removed an important safeguard in maintaining the integrity of Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence,” Labarga wrote. “The result is an increased risk that certain individuals may be executed, even if they are intellectually disabled.”

With retirements and new selections in recent years, the Florida Supreme Court has become more conservative. Gov. Ron DeSantis still needs to appoint two more justices to replace Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa, who spent only a brief time on the court before President Donald Trump elevated them a federal appeals court.

The decision in Phillips’ case drew immediate criticism from opponents of the death penalty, who say the Florida Supreme Court has yet again thumbed its nose at the legal concept of stare decisis, or making decisions drawing from legal precedents.

“I am personally shocked at the Court’s audacity and frankly its meanness,” said defense lawyer Stephen Harper, of Florida International University’s Florida Center for Capital Representation.

“So many people who were already granted relief by the Florida Supreme Court are now being deprived of that relief by the Florida Supreme Court. “And stare decisis has been abandoned, and this will have a much more devastating effect on the public’s trust in the judicial system.”

Two years ago, the Florida Supreme Court backtracked on allowing certain juveniles — who had been eligible for parole because their murder convictions were from decades ago — to get new sentencing hearings.

In January, the Florida Supreme Court reversed itself in ruling that unanimous jury verdicts were not needed to mete out the death penalty, a ruling excoriated by opponents of capital punishment. Florida law, however, still require juries to be unanimous in handing down a death sentence.

In the latest case, the Florida Supreme Court issued the ruling in the case of Phillips, who was first sentenced to death in 1984. He shot and killed parole supervisor Svenson in August 1982 in a North Miami-Dade parking lot.

Phillips has for years sought to reverse his death sentence, arguing that he could not be executed because he is intellectually disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 2002, ruled that executing intellectually disabled people is “cruel and unusual punishment” outlawed by the Constitution.

A Miami trial judge, however, ruled that Phillips was not intellectually disabled, a decision upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in 2008.

In the ensuing years, in a case called Hall v. State, the state high court broadened the range of people who could be deemed intellectually disabled, allowing people who have tested within five points of an IQ of 70 to present additional evidence that they may in fact be intellectually disabled.

Then, in 2013, Florida justices, in Walls v. State, ruled that that range could be applied to older cases. Phillips appealed, hoping to fall in that category.

But the newest court — with a majority of conservative-leaning justices — ruled that its early incarnation “clearly erred in reaching that conclusion and we now recede from our decision in Walls.” Justices said the Hall case “merely clarified” how the state determines who is intellectually disabled, and wasn’t significant enough to warrant retroactivity.