@MichaelAuslen and @ByKristenMClark
Death sentences for nearly 200 prisoners were cemented Thursday after the Florida Supreme Court ruled they are not eligible for new hearings or lower sentences under a revamped death penalty law.
In a 6-1 ruling, the court decided that more than half of the 386 inmates currently on death row could see their sentences change. But the justices also said recent rulings throwing out parts of the state’s death penalty law would not apply retroactively to inmates whose cases were finalized before a key U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2002.
The court also lifted a stay on the execution of Mark James Asay, originally scheduled for March 17 of this year. Asay was convicted in 1988 of killing two men, Robert Booker and Robert McDowell, in Jacksonville.
It’s a signal that executions could begin again after an 11-month hiatus while Florida’s death penalty was shrouded in uncertainty.
Gov. Rick Scott’s office is “reviewing the ruling,” spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said. The state has executed 23 people while Scott has been in office, more than any governor since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976.
Thursday’s ruling caps a tumultuous year for Florida’s death penalty. The only execution in 2016 was that of Oscar Ray Bolin, Jr. on Jan. 7. He was executed just five days before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state’s death penalty unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida, prompting the Legislature to re-write sentencing laws.
Then, in October, the Florida Supreme Court decided that the Hurst ruling required a unanimous vote by the jury to sentence someone to death. Current law requires a supermajority vote by 10 of the 12 members of a jury.
Deciding how to apply those rulings to the 386 prisoners on death row has been a “thorny issue,” the justices wrote, requiring them to balance fairness and inmates’ constitutional rights with the principle that decisions by judges and juries are final.
Critics of the ruling, including some justices on the deeply divided court, say drawing a line in the sand on the day the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona is arbitrary. That case required that juries find specific aggravating factors before sentencing someone to death and called Florida’s death penalty laws into question.
Just one justice, who retires Dec. 30, disagreed entirely with the majority. Justice James Perry wrote that all death row inmates should be entitled to new sentences.
“(The ruling) creates an arbitrary application of law to two groups of similarly situated persons,” he wrote. “Coupled with Florida’s troubled history in applying the death penalty in a discriminatory manner, I believe that such an application is unconstitutional.”
The court’s decision could also lead to more confusion about Florida’s death penalty in the future, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
“That’s not a principled basis to decide whether someone should live or die,” he said. “And that only adds additional fuel to the cries of death penalty opponents that the United States is incapable of carrying out capital punishment in anything but an arbitrary manner.”
In a second ruling on Thursday, the Supreme Court granted a new sentencing hearing to another death-row inmate, John F. Mosley, who was convicted of killing his girlfriend and infant son in 2004. His sentence was final after the Ring decision, unlike Asay’s.