World

US Supreme Court ruling undermines Florida death penalty laws

Miami:  Following a US Supreme Court decision that struck down part of Florida's capital punishment law, the state legislature and courts are grappling with proposals that could significantly change how criminals are sentenced to death in a state with one of the nation's most crowded death rows.

Death penalty prosecutions are stalled, and state lawmakers are hustling to write and pass a new death penalty law before their session ends in six weeks. Also in question is whether the 390 inmates awaiting execution in Florida will remain on death row or be resentenced to life in prison. As of last week, more than 40 inmates had appeals pending.

The Florida Supreme Court has set a hearing for Tuesday to consider whether the Supreme Court's January 12 decision striking down part of the state's death penalty law is retroactive. At the same time, Florida's highest court approved the February 11 execution of Cary Michael Lambrix, whose appeals had run out before the Supreme Court decision. Another inmate's execution is slated for March.

Already, one county judge has told prosecutors they cannot pursue capital punishment in a coming first-degree murder trial because Florida currently has no death penalty.

In the state Capitol, the Republican-controlled legislature is debating how best to change Florida's unorthodox law, with some pushing for a thorough overhaul to blunt future legal challenges and others vying for an easy fix that would simply address the court's narrow ruling. The Legislature has refused for years to address the law's numerous constitutional frailties -  namely that it requires only a simple majority of a 12-person jury to recommend a death sentence to a judge.

Advertisement

A state that enthusiastically embraces the death penalty, Florida is second only to California in the number of death row inmates. The Florida governor, Rick Scott, issues death warrants routinely. But the state also leads the country in death row exonerations, with 26, something that critics of Florida's law said could be traced to the death penalty statute.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court found that Florida's death penalty system gave too much power to judges and not enough to juries, a violation of the Sixth Amendment. The decision rested on one point of the Florida law: To recommend a death sentence, a jury must agree on at least one aggravating factor, a circumstance that makes the murder so horrific that it merits putting the killer to death rather than imposing a prison sentence. The aggravating factor could be that the crime was especially heinous or that it was committed after substantial premeditation.

But Florida is the only state in the country that does not require a jury to unanimously agree on aggravating factors. Jurors here also do not tell the judge which factors they chose. So after a jury makes its recommendation, the judge can hand down a death sentence based on different aggravating factors altogether, an anomaly that the Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional.

In the Supreme Court's majority opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that "the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death". She added that allowing judges to find aggravating factors "independent of a jury's fact-finding" made the system in Florida unconstitutional. It is one provision the Legislature must fix if it is to reinstitute the death penalty.

Alabama and Delaware are the only other states that do not require a unanimous jury verdict in death penalty sentences. Delaware and Florida require a simple majority; Alabama requires a super-majority, a vote of at least 10-2. The three states are also the only ones that allow judges to override recommendations for life in prison and impose the death penalty.

One important unanswered question is whether the Supreme Court's ruling will affect the inmates on death row here. It is possible that dozens of those whose appeals are still pending could see their death sentences reduced to life in prison, legal experts say.

For now, the state's death row numbers will not grow. Capital cases that are in the pipeline are being delayed until the law is sorted out, possibly by March, when the legislative session ends, lawyers said.

Some Florida lawyers say that political motives were preventing a more thorough overhaul that would require unanimous jury verdicts for death sentences. State Senator Thad Altman, a Republican who has tried for years to change the law, said unanimity required greater deliberation by jurors, which was only fitting for a death sentence. If convicting criminals in Florida required a unanimous jury, condemning them to death should be no different, he said.

"The Legislature here is very pro-death penalty," Mr Altman said. "They don't want to be perceived as being soft on crime in any way and make it more difficult to sentence someone to death."

New York Times

Advertisement