Florida High Court Reverses Itself on Death Penalty Verdicts

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) – Convicted murderers no longer need a unanimous jury to sentence them to death, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in a dramatic reversal.

In a 4-1 decision Thursday, the justices wrote that their predecessors “got it wrong” when interpreting a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed Florida’s death penalty sentencing practices unconstitutional.

The Florida Supreme Court. (Photo via Bruin79/Wikipedia Commons)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling only required jurors to unanimously decide if the defendant was eligible for the death penalty due to aggravating factors, not if he or she should actually receive a death sentence, the majority wrote.

“The Sixth Amendment … does not require any jury recommendation of death, much less a unanimous one,” according to the unsigned opinion from Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Carlos Muniz, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson.

Every state with the death penalty, except for Alabama, requires a unanimous jury verdict. Federal law also requires unanimity.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida, state law allowed a simple majority of jurors to pass a death sentence recommendation to the trial judge, who made the final judgment. But the nation’s high court ruled this sentencing structure gave too much deference to the judge.

When the case came back to the Florida Supreme Court as Hurst v. State, the justices ruled a unanimous jury is required for the death penalty, among other changes. The decision sent dozens of convictions back to the courts for resentencing.

The following year, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring a unanimous jury for death penalty cases.

“It is no small matter for one court to conclude that a predecessor court has clearly erred,” the majority wrote Thursday. “This court used Hurst v Florida — a narrow and predictable ruling that should have had limited practical effect on the administration of the death penalty in our state — as an occasion to disregard decades of settled Supreme Court and Florida precedent.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Lawson noted the state law is still in effect. The state supreme court decision, though, opens up the possibility of lawmakers revising the law.

“Our decision today is not a comment on the merits of those changes or on whether they should be retained,” Lawson wrote. “We simply have restored discretion that Hurst v. State wrongly took from the political branches.”

In the lone dissenting opinion, Justice Jorge Labarga strongly rebuked the majority decision that “returns Florida to its status as an absolute outlier among the jurisdictions in this country that utilize the death penalty.”

“Not only does requiring a unanimous recommendation of a sentence of death comport with the overwhelming majority of death penalty states, it also comports with federal law governing the imposition of the federal death penalty,” Labarga wrote. “By receding from the unanimity requirement, we treat from the national consensus and take a huge step backward in Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence.”

Labarga also referenced Florida’s “shameful national title as the state with the most death row exonerations.”

According to the Washington D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, 29 death-row inmates in Florida have been exonerated.

“Given this history, there is every reason to maintain reasonable safeguards for ensuring that the death penalty is fairly administered,” he wrote.

The ruling revolves around the sentencing of Mark Poole, convicted in 2011 of murdering a man and raping and attempting to kill a pregnant woman during a home invasion. He was given the death penalty.

After the Florida Supreme Court made the unanimous jury requirement retroactive to 2011, Poole requested a new sentencing hearing, which the state appealed.

Thursday’s Florida Supreme Court ruling sends Poole back to death row.

“The Florida Supreme Court’s abrupt decision to overturn Hurst, after repeatedly declining to do so, is nothing short of astonishing,” Poole’s attorney, Julius Chen, said in an emailed statement to Courthouse News. “We are carefully exploring avenues for further review in Mr. Poole’s case.”

Chen is an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

A spokesperson for the Florida Attorney General’s office said they were still reviewing the decision and declined to comment.

Thursday’s opinion is another example of the conservative shift of the Florida Supreme Court since January 2019, when liberal justices Peggy Quince, Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis retired and newly elected Republican Governor Ron DeSantis replaced them with candidates backed by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Only five justices weighed in on the case even though the court has seven seats. President Donald Trump recently promoted two other Florida justices to federal court positions. DeSantis will replace them in the coming weeks.

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