A Florida appeals panel reversed a lower court and ruled that the state's pending prosecution of death-penalty cases can continue after a new sentencing law went into effect this month.
The state of Florida brought consolidated case to its Fifth District Court of Appeals after a lower court sided with two accused murderers, who argued the state cannot pursue the death penalty after the U.S. Supreme Court in January struck down the Florida law that allowed judges to override juries in imposing the death penalty. The trial court agreed.
The Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida found Florida's sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment's right to trial by jury. After the ruling, as executions were put on hold, state legislators scrambled to fix the law.
Lawmakers accomplished the task earlier this month and Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the new sentencing guidelines, which require at least 10 jurors to decide a death sentence and prevent a judge from overruling their decision.
Since the new guidelines already took effect, the appeals court ruled March 16 that the Supreme Court decision only applied to the process of handing down a death penalty, not the penalty itself.
The 2 defendants in the consolidated case - Larry Darnell Perry and William Theodore Woodward - could now face lethal injection.
Perry, 31, allegedly beat his 2-month-old son to death and Woodward, 47, is accused of shooting 2 of his neighbors to death. When prosecutors said they intended to seek the death penalty, the 2 men argued Florida did not have a constitutional death penalty.
But the appeals court disagreed.
"We believe that Hurst's holding is narrow and based solely on the court's determination that the 'Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,'" Judge Richard Orfinger wrote for a 3-judge panel. "Thus, we have no difficulty in concluding that Hurst struck down the process of imposing a sentence of death, not the penalty itself."
However, the panel of 3 judges did certify a question to the Florida Supreme Court that may ultimately need an answer as more appeals filter through the courts: "Did Hurst v. Florida declare Florida's death penalty unconstitutional?"
Source: Courthouse News, April 1, 2016