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Florida's death penalty struck down – again

The state's high court ruled Friday that Florida's capital punishment laws – even as amended following a US Supreme Court ruling – are unconstitutional.

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    Representatives of a group of over 50 faith leaders from the Jacksonville, Fla. area hold a news conference in front of the Duval County Courthouse to call for the end of the death penalty on Aug. 24, 2016.
    Bob Mack/The Florida Times-Union/AP
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For the second time in less than a year, Florida's death penalty sentencing process has been ruled unconstitutional.

The Sunshine State’s highest court ruled on Friday that the law, which only required 10 out of 12 jurors to recommend capital punishment in murder cases, instead of a unanimous decision, was unconstitutional.

Legislators had already revised the law after the US Supreme Court struck down the previous iteration. In January, the nation's high court ruled 8-1 that the previous law – which granted judges, rather than a jury, the power to issue a death sentence – was unconstitutional.

The challenges in Florida come at a time when capital punishment faces a myriad of legal and logistical hurdles across the country. While the death penalty has far from entirely fallen out of favor – a majority of Americans still support it – there has been renewed scrutiny on the way it is doled out and implemented, as recent high-profile cases have shown.

Last week, the US Supreme Court heard a high-profile challenge to a death sentence issued in Texas, which civil rights advocates say was influenced by racial bias. In Pennsylvania, the governor placed a moratorium on the death penalty until a bipartisan committee could investigate the use of the punishment in the state. Numerous other states have had to postpone executions because of difficulties sourcing lethal injection drugs as companies seek to distance themselves from the practice.

The cases in Florida focus on the role of the jury in sentencing.

“By striking down Florida’s capital punishment scheme, the Supreme Court restored the central role of the jury in imposing the death penalty,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement after the US Supreme Court’s January ruling. “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.”

The case was initially brought to the US Supreme Court on behalf of Timothy Hurst, who was sentenced to death for the murder of a restaurant manager in 1998.

In another ruling on Friday, Florida's high court ordered Mr. Hurst’s death sentence to be vacated and sent back to a lower court for a new sentencing hearing. The court declined to commute his sentence to life in prison, as some advocates had sought.

Friday's rulings could affect other cases as well, as the law around death penalty sentencing cannot be applied to pending cases as written.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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