|Florida death chamber|
[T]here are dozens of condemned inmates whose sentences could be reduced to life without parole or who could get new sentencing hearings in the first wave of legal challenges to a Florida death penalty sentencing system struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court ruled on Jan. 12 that Florida's system is unconstitutional because it does not require juries to make all findings of fact necessary to impose a death sentence. That means Florida is violating a defendant's right to a trial by jury.
The Supreme Court's decision involved Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of killing a co-worker at a Pensacola fast-food restaurant in 1998.
Hurst sits in his 6- by 9-foot cell at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, waiting for the Florida Supreme Court to review his case as ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court.
He's not alone. Death penalty experts and Attorney General Pam Bondi say that as many as 43 death row inmates could get life sentences without parole or new sentencing hearings.
It's partly a matter of timing.
Those 43 inmates have filed limited challenges to their death sentences known as direct appeals, which have not yet been acted upon by the Florida Supreme Court. Justices must now apply the Hurst decision to those cases.
"It's sort of a given that these people get the benefit of Hurst," said Martin McClain, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who represents death row inmates in their appeals. "The question will be whether it leads to a life sentence or a new sentencing."
Those 43 cases in the post-Hurst pipeline involve some of Florida's most horrific crimes of the past two decades.
Florida has 389 inmates on death row, second only to California. The state's death penalty is experiencing its greatest turmoil since it was reinstituted four decades ago.
The Hurst case is expected to unleash a flood of new appeals and is forcing a conservative, pro-death penalty Legislature to hurriedly rewrite the law so that executions can resume.
As lawmakers craft a new law, the state's highest court agreed Tuesday to indefinitely postpone the scheduled Feb. 11 execution of Michael Lambrix. He has been on death row since 1984 after being convicted of two murders in Glades County.
Lambrix's case is much older than most death penalty cases, and a legal question is whether the Hurst decision can be applied retroactively to him. The court's decision to stop his execution is seen as an indication that justices want to analyze the impact of the Hurst decision.
In the cases of Lambrix and his other clients, McClain wants the state court to change every death sentence to life without parole, which Bondi opposes.
In case after case this week, Bondi's legal experts argued that those original death sentences must be carried out. The marathon legal battles are just beginning as more cases will appear on the court's argument docket in coming months.
Source: Tampa Bay Times, Steve Bousquet, Feb. 4, 2016