Did Supreme Court ruling spare the lives of 389 Florida inmates?

Florida's death penalty system was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court last month, but the ruling will continue to influence capital punishment at large. 

Scott Keeler/The Tampa Bay Times/AP
State Sen. Rob Bradley, R- Fleming Island, center, 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, Jan. 13, 2016, in Tallahassee, Fla.

The Florida Supreme Court will decide Tuesday whether 389 inmates awaiting execution are to remain on death row. 

The US Supreme Court ruled on the case Hurst v. Florida on Jan. 12, striking down Florida’s death penalty system as unconstitutional in an 8 to 1 vote. While the Constitution mandates jury-appointed sentences for the accused, Florida state law authorized judges to issue the death penalty, even if the jury recommends otherwise.

Under Florida’s past system, a jury decides if the defendant is guilty of a capital crime and then issues an advisory sentence. The trial judge then gives “great weight” to the jury’s recommendation, but ultimately the judge makes the final call on capital punishment. Also particular to Florida, unanimity is not required: the jury can recommend a death sentence by a majority vote.

But after reviewing the sentencing timeline of Timothy Hurst, convicted of murdering an assistant manager at Popeye’s Fried Chicken in 1998, the highest court ruled against the practice of vesting the ultimate decision in Florida’s judges. 

“We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion last month. “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.” 

Capital punishment opponents see this ruling as a victory. 

“Juries across the country have become increasingly reluctant to vote in favor of death,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement. 

But as effects from the Hurst ruling continue to reverberate, opponents will likely see even more victories. 

Florida’s highest court will decide Tuesday if the ruling applies retroactively, affecting the state’s current 389 death row inmates.  

Dozens of conviction appeals have already been filed, and it’s possible the Hurst ruling could reduce the death sentences to life in prison. Capital punishment opponents are hopeful, knowing that the Florida’s Supreme Court will have to respond to a 1972 precedent that deemed the death penalty unconstitutional as it was practiced at the time.

“Florida’s response was to vacate every single death sentence, no matter when it had been entered, and convert it to a life sentence,” Martin McClain, a defense lawyer for one inmate appealing his conviction after Hurst, told NPR. “That’s what you do when your statute for imposing a death sentence has been rendered unconstitutional.”  

And Florida was one of three states with the judge jurisdiction provision: Alabama and Delaware still authorize advisory sentences by juries and final decisions by judges in capital punishment cases. 

While neither state has seen immediate repercussions, experts say Hurst-induced change is likely coming. 

“It’s my opinion that it really casts doubt on the validity of Delaware’s death penalty scheme,” Brendan O’Neill, Delaware’s chief defender, told Delaware Online. 

And Evan Mandery, a death penalty scholar, has said it is unlikely Alabama’s law can survive the Hurst ruling unscathed. 

For death penalty opponents, Florida’s majority jury provision is likely next on the to-do list. State Senator Thad Altman (R) has tried for years to require unanimous jury sentences because he feels unanimity depends on a level of deliberation warranted by death penalty cases. 

“The Legislature here is very pro-death penalty,” Sen. Altman told The New York Times. “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.” 

The statistics back up Sen. Altman’s claims. 

Florida has conducted 92 executions since 1976, putting the state in fourth place behind Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia. And as of July 1, 2015, Florida had 400 inmates on death row, second only to California with 746.  

In 2014, Duval County, which includes the city of Jacksonville, handed down more death sentences per capita than any other place in America. 

“We live in a conservative county… that values personal responsibility, which means that people here also value personal accountability,” Florida Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda tells The Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson.  

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