The Florida Supreme Court ruled Friday that Florida’s revamped death penalty law was unconstitutional, declaring that death sentences must be determined by a unanimous jury and triggering the potential re-sentencing of hundreds of inmates on death row.
In a 5-2 ruling, the court ordered Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature to try again to rewrite the law struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in January which allowed for 10 members of a 12-member jury to impose a death sentence. The court went beyond imposing a unanimous jury, it also raised the bar in capital cases by declaring that juries, not judges, must unanimously agree on all components of the evidence relating to the death sentence.
“We...hold, based on Florida’s requirement for unanimity in jury verdicts, and under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, that in order for the trial court to impose a sentence of death, the jury’s recommended sentence of death must be unanimous,” the court majority wrote. Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented, saying the court did not have the authority to reject the law.
The immediate effect of the ruling is that more than 40 inmates who have not completed their death penalty review must be given a new sentencing trial, any capital cases pending in Florida must be decided by a unanimous jury for the first time since the death penalty was restored in Florida in 1972, and the 385 inmates now on death row have a new legal avenue to seek another sentencing trial.
“Today’s decisions will mean that all defendants on Florida’s death row whose cases are pending on direct appeal will be entitled to new sentencing hearings unless the state can prove its heavy burden of showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the error in their cases would not have affected the jury verdicts in capital sentencing,’’ said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, which joined in the case.
Stephen Harper, of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at the Florida International School of Law, said the ruling “will clearly limit the number of cases in which prosecutors seek death because the burden of proof is harder and stronger.”
This is the second time this year that Florida’s death penalty law has been held unconstitutional. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the state’s death penalty law that allowed a judge to overrule a jury verdict and impose a death sentence. The court said that in that case, known as Hurst v. Florida, that Florida’s system was a violation of a defendant’s right to a jury trial.
Florida lawmakers responded by rewriting the state law, replacing the judge’s override and requiring a 10-12 vote of a jury to send someone to death. The law required that juries in future capital cases must agree unanimously and in writing on the aggravating factors before imposing a death sentence.