Florida Death-Penalty Cases Trigger Diverging High Court Opinions

WASHINGTON (CN) — Three Supreme Court justices defended their votes Tuesday after the court rejected its 84th death-penalty case in recent weeks involving the same claim against Florida.

As with the preceding cases, the challenge here by Michael Gordon Reynolds sought retroactive application of Hurst v. Florida, a 2016 ruling in which the Supreme Court found the Sunshine State’s death-penalty scheme unconstitutional because it required a judge rather than a jury to find the aggravating circumstances necessary to impose a death sentence.

Though the Florida bench has retroactively applied the Hurst holding to capital defendants whose sentences became final after 2002, capital defendants like Reynolds whose sentences became final before 2002 have been denied relied.

The basis for the cutoff is Ring v. Arizona, a 2002 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled against a similar death-penalty scheme in a different state.

With the Supreme Court rejecting the challenge today by Reynolds, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that a more prudent course of action would be to rule on the constitutionality of the death penalty itself, “rather than attempting to address the flaws in piecemeal fashion.”

Though Breyer raised the possibility that Reynolds may not have been sentenced to die if the jurors had to confront various issues with the death-penalty scheme, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion that the facts of Reynolds’ case should “alleviate [his] concerns.”

“The only thing ‘cruel and unusual’ in this case was petitioner’s brutal murder of three innocent victims,” the opinion from Thomas states.

Thomas noted Reynolds was convicted of murdering nearly an entire family in 1998. He began with the father, bashing in Danny Ray Privett’s head with a piece of concrete as Privett relieved himself outside of the family’s camping trailer.

Not wanting to leave any witnesses, Reynolds “entered the trailer, where he brutally beat, stabbed, and murdered Privett’s girlfriend, Robin Razor, and their 11-year-old daughter, Christina Razor,” the Thomas opinion states.

“Only petitioner knows whether Robin had to watch her daughter die, or whether Christina had to watch her mother die,” the opinion continues.

Thomas added that “the sole surviving family member, Danielle, ‘was spared only because she was spending the night with a friend.’”

Speaking to Breyer’s concern about how long it takes for the death penalty to be administered — saying it could take 40 years after the jury’s verdict — Thomas called this “a reason to carry out the death penalty sooner, not to decline to impose it.”

“It is no mystery why it often takes decades to execute a convicted murderer,” Thomas added. “The ‘labyrinthine restrictions on capital punishment] promulgated by this court’ have caused the delays that Justice Breyer now bemoans.”

Thomas also balked at Breyer’s concern about unequal treatment: that Reynolds will still be executed while others sentenced to die in the same manner have been awarded resentencing.

“Whether he deserves to be sentenced to death has nothing to do with whether a different person who engaged in different conduct might be entitled to be resentenced on procedural grounds,” Thomas wrote. “Moreover, if petitioner had been resentenced, and was again sentenced to death, I have little doubt that Justice Breyer would instead be fretting that the original jury failed to consider his belief that resentencing “sharpens’ ‘death row’s inevitable anxieties and uncertainties.’”

The opinion concludes with Thomas arguing that Reynolds’ jury was indeed made to shoulder the enormity of sentencing and “nonetheless … returned not one but two unanimous death recommendations.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor rounded out the opinions in the Reynolds case with a dissent, specifying that Reynolds is one of seven Florida capital defendants in today’s order list whose sentences should be revisited.

“The jurors in petitioners’ cases were repeatedly instructed that their role was merely advisory, yet the Florida Supreme Court has treated their recommendations as legally binding by way of its harmless-error analysis,” Sotomayor wrote. “This approach raises substantial Eighth Amendment concerns. As I continue to believe that ‘the stakes in capital cases are too high to ignore such constitutional challenges,’ I would grant review to decide whether the Florida Supreme Court’s harmless-error approach is valid in light of Caldwell. This court’s refusal to address petitioners’ challenges signals that it is unwilling to decide this issue. I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari, and I will continue to note my dissent in future cases raising the Caldwell question.”

The Supreme Court decided the case Caldwell v. Mississippi in 1985, holding that it is “constitutionally impermissible to rest a death sentence on a determination made by a sentencer who has been led to believe that the responsibility for determining the appropriateness of the defendant’s death rests elsewhere.”

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