CN) – The Florida Supreme Court ruled that death penalty cases in the state can proceed despite the fact its unconstitutional sentencing scheme for capital cases remains on the books.
On January 12, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s practice of having judges issue death-penalty sentences after collecting jury recommendations.
The case stemmed from the sentencing of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of killing a fast-food worker during a robbery in May 1978.
Hurst stabbed his bound and gagged victim, Cynthia Harrison, more than 60 times before leaving her in the restaurant freezer. The jury quickly convicted him of the crime, but was sharply divided over imposing the death penalty.
Under the existing Florida law, judges had wide latitude when it came to sentencing in capital cases, even allowing them to override the sentences handed down by juries.
In Hurst’s case, the judge overseeing his trial went ahead and sentenced him to die despite the jury’s reservations. The sentence was later affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court.
In the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reversed that decision and held the state sentencing scheme unconstitutional, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote “the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”
Florida responded by passing a new law that requires at least 10 of 12 jurors to recommend execution, and then, only after they’ve unanimously decided at least one “aggravating factor” related to the crime justifies it.
But in a pair of rulings in October, the Florida Supreme Court said the new state law was still unconstitutional because it continued to allow a partial panel to recommend the death penalty “as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, 12-member jury.”
The court also held that the new law could not be applied to pending prosecutions.
As a result of the ruling, the retrial of Patrick Evans, a former executive who was tried and previously convicted of killing his estranged wife and her friend, was cast in doubt.
Pinellas County Circuit Judge Joseph Bulone believed the case could go ahead anyway — so long as the jurors were told it would take all of them to agree to send Evans to death row.
But Evans’ defense attorneys disagreed, and filed an emergency petition with the Florida Supreme Court to block the start of jury selection in the case.
That set the stage for the court’s Feb. 20 ruling, in which it said death penalty prosecutions could go forward.
In its 5-2 decision, the majority, led by Justice Jorge Labarga, said the new law can be applied to pending prosecutions so long as 12 jurors “unanimously determine that defendant should be sentenced to death.”
Writing in dissent, Justice Barbara Pariente said the majority opinion would do little more than invite further litigation.
“Such concerns are precisely why it is for the Legislation, not this Court, to enact legislation curing the act’s fatal 10-2 provisions, assuming the Legislature intends for the death penalty to continue to me imposed in Florida.”
And that appears to be the case.
The state House Judiciary Committee is currently considering a measure, HB 527, that would do away with the 10-2 jury recommendations and instead require unanimity for death sentences to be imposed.
A Senate panel will consider a later proposal later this week.
It is expected among the first orders of business when the full legislature convenes in Tallahassee on March 7.