Could Supreme Court's death penalty ruling buy time for Florida's condemned?

The US Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the Florida's 'sentencing scheme' violates the Sixth Amendment. One man on death row has requested a delay of execution, citing the high court's decision.

Scott Keeler/The Tampa Bay Times/AP
Florida's Republican state Sen. Rob Bradley (c.) asks a question of Julianne Holt, a Hillsborough Public Defender, during a Florida Senate Civil and Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee meeting concerning issues with the Florida's death penalty, Wednesday, in Tallahassee, Fla.

The United States Supreme Court's decisive ruling that Florida’s capital sentencing practice is illegal because it gives judges, not juries, the final power to hand down death penalty decisions raises a new question: What to do about the 390 inmates currently on Florida's death row?

In the high court's 8-1 ruling, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion that the court finds the "sentencing scheme unconstitutional. The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”

The state, which has the second-highest number of inmates on death row in the country, received a request from a condemned inmate shortly after the high court's ruling to delay his execution.

Michael Lambrix is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Feb. 11. Mr. Lambrix was sentenced to death for a 1983 double murder. Prosecutors said he killed two people he met at a bar after inviting them home for a spaghetti dinner.

Attorneys for Lambrix cited the Supreme Court's ruling in their request for a new sentencing hearing. "The potential retroactivity of Hurst ... to Mr. Lambrix's ... case and potentially to many, many other cases ... is an issue that demands ... an oral argument before this Court," Lambrix's attorney William Hennis wrote.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office said the US Supreme Court's finding should not be applied retroactively to condemned inmates who have exhausted the appeals process. Her office requested that the state's high court reject the request. 

"Lambrix's request for a stay should be denied," Bondi's office wrote. "It is time for Lambrix's sentence for these brutal murders to be carried out."

It remains unclear when the court would make a decision. Another execution, scheduled for March, may encounter similar uncertainty. 

"The current death penalty scheme in Florida is in limbo," said Sarah Turberville, director of justice programs for the Constitution Project, a bipartisan legal rights advocacy group, in an interview with Reuters.

The American Bar Association has recommended Florida delay all executions until the courts have addressed a clear path forward following the ruling.

Bondi said state laws must be rewritten but did not say to what extent. "The impact of the court's ruling on existing death sentences will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis," she said.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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