|Florida's death chamber|
TALLAHASSEE — Florida's death penalty system, under sustained legal assault for the past year, faces renewed pressure in 2017 that will strain courts, victims and taxpayers in ways sure to rekindle a debate over capital punishment.
A series of federal and state court rulings will bring upheaval to a system long criticized for racial disparities and for seemingly endless and unjust delays. Now the state must confront the enormous impact of a case known as Hurst vs. Florida, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that constitutional rights of defendants were violated because their juries had too little say in recommending sentences of death.
Applying the Hurst case to Florida — the state with the second most death row inmates at 384 — the state Supreme Court decided that about half of those inmates should still face execution.
Those inmates were sentenced before 2002, when another case, Ring vs. Arizona, found that it was unconstitutional for a judge instead of a jury to find the facts necessary to impose the death penalty. At the time, the Florida Supreme Court decided the Ring decision did not apply because Florida had a different sentencing scheme and that in another case, the nation's highest court upheld the constitutionality of Florida's system.
But the other half of the death row population — most inmates sentenced after Ring in 2002 — could be resentenced to life without parole, depending on the facts in each case, because they were condemned to die under a law ruled unconstitutional by the Hurst case.
Attorney General Pam Bondi will continue to seek to carry out as many death sentences as possible, arguing that any previous sentencing errors were legally harmless. But as a flurry of post-Hurst appeals clogs the courts, legal experts foresee an expensive and, for the families of victims, agonizingly painful review of as many as 200 cases in which defendants seek sentences of life without parole.
"Two hundred do-overs," said Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national group critical of how states, especially Florida, carry out the death penalty. "There are not enough judges, court personnel, prosecutors or defense lawyers to timely move these cases forward."
That's not all. A pro-death penalty Legislature must fix the law a second time after the Florida Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a provision that does not require all 12 jurors to agree on a death sentence when they recommend punishment to a judge who issues the final life-or-death verdict.
Because jury recommendations of death in Florida are usually not unanimous, the practical effect will be more do-overs, with new sentencing hearings in dozens of cases.
Prosecutors will have to track down old trial transcripts and witnesses, and families of victims will have to endure a public spectacle of some of the state's most horrific crimes a second time.
"It's an absolute nightmare for these families," said Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant state attorney in Pinellas County. "And it's a logistical nightmare for us as you've got to reconstruct all these cases."
Bartlett identified nine cases in his Pinellas-Pasco circuit alone in which death row inmates could be resentenced to life because of split decisions by juries that recommended death.
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Source: Tampa Bay Times, Steve Bousquet, December 30, 2016
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