Florida's Death Penalty System Ruled Unconstitutional

by | January 13, 2016

By David Ovalle

Juries, not judges, should be the ones to impose the death penalty in Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Tuesday in a ruling that will force lawmakers in Tallahassee to scramble to revamp how the state metes out sentences for murder.

In an 8-1 decision, the high court ruled that the state's unique sentencing scheme in capital punishment cases -- jurors only issue "advisory" recommendations to judges -- violates the U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the accused the right to an impartial jury trial.

That ruling, for starters, means a possible new sentencing hearing for Timothy Hurst, who was sent to Death Row for the savage stabbing murder of a fast-food manager in Pensacola in 1998. "This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst's death sentence on a jury's verdict, not a judge's fact finding," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion.

While death-penalty opponents hailed the ruling, legal experts admit that its broader impact remains less than clear.

The Florida Supreme Court will now likely have to iron out which of 390 Death Row inmates -- there are 27 from Miami-Dade -- may be eligible for new sentences under the Hurst decision. And the ruling does not specifically address whether Florida jurors must deliver unanimous verdicts for death, which occur only in about a fifth of capital punishment cases. Whether to raise the bar that high -- a goal long sought by critics -- is likely to be discussed by the Legislature, meeting in an ongoing annual session.

"I think it's a terrific decision because it invalidates Florida's death-penalty scheme in effect since 1972," said Karen Gottlieb, co-director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University's College of Law. "But it's difficult to predict how far this decision will go."

Bruce Fleisher, a Miami death-penalty defense lawyer, said many more court battles over Florida's sentencing structure will unfold in the coming months as some Death Row inmates file new appeals.

"It's a good opinion, but it doesn't give us a lot of guidance. I don't know if the Hurst decision is going to give someone who has been convicted and sentenced to death a whole new trial -- or just a new sentencing phase," Fleisher said.

Florida was one of only four states that left the decision on the death penalty in the hands of the trial judge; the others are Alabama, Delaware and Montana. Florida's sentencing scheme worked like this:

A 12-person jury that convicted someone of first-degree murder would convene for a "penalty phase" to weigh whether execution, or life in prison, was the appropriate sentence after considering "aggravating circumstances" of the case. The jury's decision, however, was considered only a nonbinding recommendation.

And only a bare majority, or seven votes, was needed to find in favor of execution, making Florida the only state in the nation to do so.

Unanimous recommendations are actually rare. Over a 12-year period through 2012, a Florida Supreme Court review of 296 sentences found that juries were unanimous in support of the death penalty just 20 percent of the time. Of the 10 men last executed in Florida, just three had juries that recommended unanimously that they be put to death.

In the case of Hurst, who stabbed Cynthia Harrison more than 60 times inside a Popeye's fried-chicken restaurant, the jury voted 7-5 for the death penalty.

Trial judges ultimately delivered the sentence, finding whether there was at least one "aggravating circumstance," such as that a murder was "heinous, atrocious and cruel." They rarely went against the jury's advice. "A jury's mere recommendation is not enough," Sotomayor wrote in the ruling that also invalidated two earlier U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Only once in recent history has a Miami-Dade judge gone against a jury's recommendation. In 2011, Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy sentenced Brandon Rolle to life in prison for the murder of a tourist in Coconut Grove, even though a jury had recommended the death penalty by a vote of 8-4.

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement that Tuesday's decision "restored the central role" of juries in the death-penalty process.

"Juries across the country have become increasingly reluctant to vote in favor of death," she said. "The court's ruling thus represents another step on the inevitable road toward ending the death penalty."

Said Terry Lenamon, a Miami death-penalty lawyer who heads the Florida Capital Resource Center: "The opinion levels the playing field in the sense that now, without question, juries are responsible for making the ultimate decision of life or death. And before they were not."

For many legal observers, Tuesday's decision was not a surprise. The opinion evolved from a similar ruling in 2002, Ring v. Arizona, that held that judges in Arizona alone could not make the call on aggravating circumstances that made someone eligible for the death penalty. Florida had long considered itself different because of the jury's "advisory" role.

Exactly which Florida Death Row inmates get a new sentencing remains to be seen. At the very least, some legal experts say, inmates whose direct appeals have not been finished may get new sentencing hearings.

In Miami-Dade, that includes Charles Johnson, convicted at trial in October of the execution-style murder of a Liberty City mother. A jury voted 9-3 to recommend death, although the judge had yet to impose the sentence.

Other Miami-Dade Death Row inmates whose appeals have yet to be exhausted: Rafael Andres, convicted of fatally stabbing a West Miami-Dade waitress in 2005; Joel Lebron, convicted of the 2002 kidnap, rape and shooting murder of South Miami High student Ana Maria Angel; and Victor Guzman, who stabbed an elderly woman 58 times in Little Havana in 2000.

For now, the heavy lifting in dealing with the legal fallout of Tuesday's opinion falls to the Legislature.

Some members for years have tried passing reforms to the death-penalty sentencing structure.

"It's a great day for justice here in Florida," Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, said after the court's ruling. "We're going to fix a problem that many of us felt was a serious problem and not really properly and fairly administering the ultimate penalty: death."

Altman is sponsoring a bill that would broadly reform the death penalty -- including adding a requirement that jurors vote unanimously to impose death, a change opposed by many prosecutors that has been repeatedly rebuffed in Tallahassee.

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, an advocate of reforming Florida's death-penalty laws, said he believes the nation's high court also will eventually strike down the less-than-unanimous requirement.

"The Legislature might as well act now and proactively change the law," Cantero told the Miami Herald. "In every other kind of decision a jury makes, it has to be unanimous. Why would imposing the death penalty be any different?"

But House Criminal Justice chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, told the Miami Herald that while his committee will take on a bill to address the Supreme Court's ruling, the unanimity issue will likely go unchanged.

"I have no intention of addressing the issue," Trujillo said. "I think the system works fine."

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