|Florida's death chamber|
Florida's new death penalty law went on trial Thursday in the Supreme Court as a death row inmate asked for a life sentence, the state called for his execution, and a justice who's often part of a five-member court majority questioned the law's constitutionality.
Hanging in the balance are the lives of all 390 death row inmates - and demands for justice by victims' families - as the court decides whether a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court must be applied retroactively, which would commute death sentences to life.
The nation's highest court ruled Jan. 12 in the case of inmate Timothy Lee Hurst that Florida's death sentencing system was unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries in capital cases.
In that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court also told the state's highest court it must review the sentence of Hurst, 37, sentenced to die for the 1998 murder of Cynthia Harrison, the manager of a Popeye's fast-food restaurant in Pensacola where they both worked. Testimony showed that Hurst emptied the store safe and used the money to buy shoes and rings.
The U.S. Supreme Court did not invalidate the death penalty itself, but Hurst's attorney, David Davis, argued that because Hurst was sentenced under a defective law, he should now be sentenced to life.
"You can't separate the punishment from the procedure," Davis said. "You can't have one without the other."
In response to the Hurst decision, Gov. Rick Scott signed a legislative overhaul of the death penalty sentencing law (HB 7101) in March.
Assistant Attorney General Carine Mitz countered that Hurst should still be executed because the Legislature addressed the defects in the old law.
"If the (Hurst) case were to be remanded (back to a trial court), it would have to be under the new statute," Mitz said. "I still don't think we have a problem."
But Justice Barbara Pariente, who frequently is part of a 5-member majority on the court, said she sees a big problem.
Pariente expressed concern that the new law could violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because it requires the existence of only one of 16 aggravating factors under Florida law that make a defendant eligible for a death sentence.
Florida's old law was a legal balancing act in which "sufficient aggravating factors," such as the severity of the crime or whether another crime was also being committed, are weighed against mitigating factors, such as the defendant's background or level of intelligence.
"If only one aggravator is needed in this state to put someone to death, we have a serious Eighth Amendment problem," Pariente said. "If we want a death penalty in Florida, we need it to be constitutional."
The state disagreed.
"I don't think that the new statute is as detrimental as some might present," Mitz said. "I probably should have said it's actually better."
Justice Charles Canady, a death penalty supporter who is frequently opposite Pariente and in the minority, noted that jurors in Hurst's case found 2 aggravating factors in recommending his execution by a 7-5 vote.
"We know the death sentence was based on 2 aggravators," Canady said.
Long before the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, Pariente had questions about Hurst's case. The court upheld his death sentence in 2014 in a 4-3 decision in which Pariente' partial dissent was joined by justices Jorge Labarga, now the chief justice, and James Perry.
"I dissent from the majority's affirmance of Hurst's death sentence because there is no unanimous finding by the jury that any of the applicable aggravators apply," Pariente wrote in 2014. "The absence of juror unanimity in the fact-finding necessary to impose the death penalty remains, in my view, an independent violation of Florida's constitutional right to trial by jury."
Because of the Hurst case, capital punishment in Florida is facing its greatest uncertainty since it was reinstituted in the 1970s.
The last inmate executed was Oscar Ray Bolin, who was put to death Jan. 7, 5 days before the Hurst decision.
Since then, the Florida Supreme Court has indefinitely delayed the executions of Michael Lambrix and Mark Asay, whose attorneys have also argued that their sentences should be reduced to life without parole.
Attorney General Pam Bondi has identified 43 death sentences that are eligible to be reduced to life.
Those 43 so-called "pipeline" cases involve inmates whose initial limited appeals, known as direct appeals, have not yet been heard by the Florida Supreme Court.
Source: Tampa Bay Times, May 6, 2016
Florida Supreme Court hears argument in landmark death penalty case
On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments in a Pensacola murder case that in January prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to declare Florida's death penalty statute unconstitutional. An attorney for murderer Timothy Hurst asked the state's high court to direct a trial judge to resentence the defendant to life in prison. Assistant State Attorney General Carine Mitz asked it to rule that despite the high court ruling, Hurst still should be put to death.
During a 40-minute session Thursday, justices on the Florida Supreme Court peppered attorneys with questions about what to do with Timothy Lee Hurst, a death row inmate who murdered his boss at a Pensacola Popeye's fried chicken restaurant in 1998.
It's their job to fix Florida's broken death penalty system.
In January, after studying what happened at Hurst's trial, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state's death penalty statute unconstitutional.
It violated an inmate's right to a trial by jury, the high court wrote, because in Florida a judge - not a jury - imposed sentence.
On Thursday, an attorney for Hurst asked the court to spare his client. David A. Davis cited a 1972 Florida law that says if the death penalty is found to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, every Florida inmate with a death sentence must have it commuted to life."
"This court - I hate to say it's an easy job, but it's a straightforward one," Davis said.
Earlier in the week some of the state's most powerful attorneys, including three former Florida Supreme Court justices, filed paperwork with the Florida Supreme Court, asking it to commute the sentences of all 390 inmates on death row to life in prison.
They cited that same 1972 law.
But Assistant Florida Attorney General Carine Mitz argued that that law does not apply because only a portion of the state's sentencing statute was found to be invalid.
She urged the court to leave Hurst's death sentence unchanged. He was not harmed, she said, by the error pointed out by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was not clear Thursday what the court would do.
Florida has halted executions since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision on Jan. 12.
Hurst was convicted of murdering Popeye's assistant manager Cynthia Harrison. He had stabbed or slashed her 60 times with a box cutter during a robbery.
Mitz argued that had a jury rather than a judge made the final decision at his trial, Hurst still would have been given the death penalty.
A new law
The Florida Legislature quickly rewrote the death penalty statute, and on March 7 Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law. Now, before the death penalty can be imposed, at least 10 jurors must vote for it.
In addition all 12 must identify and agree on at least 1 "aggravating factor" that explains why the inmate deserves to be put to death, for example, that the killing was especially heinous, atrocious and cruel.
Under the old law jurors voted on whether to recommend a sentence of life or death, and a majority ruled. A judge then made the final decision.
Death penalty experts agree that the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for a narrow group of killers, the worst of the worst.
On Thursday Florida Supreme Court Justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince suggested that the new state law is flawed because it may fail to do that. It allows jurors to recommend death based on a single aggravating factor.
"If only one aggravator is, in this state, all that is needed to put someone to death, we have a serious Eighth Amendment problem," Pariente said.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
Among the things that qualify as aggravating factors: if the victim is elderly, if the defendant is on felony probation, if the killing is committed during a burglary.
Now anyone convicted of killing an elderly person could be put to death, Pariente said.
"If we want a death penalty in Florida, we need it to be constitutional," Pariente said.
It's not clear when the Florida Supreme Court will render its ruling.
Source: Orlando Sentinel, May 6, 2016
Florida's Supreme Court May Overturn the Death Sentences of 400 Prisoners
According to the Washington Post, Florida's highest court has been hearing arguments for the case of convicted felon Timothy Lee Hurst, who received the death penalty for the 1998 murder of his coworker Cynthia Harrison. Hurt's criminal case was central to SCOTUS' January ruling, when Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the judge's power to veto the jury's sentencing made it a violation of the Sixth Amendment.
On these grounds, Hurst's lawyers argued on Thursday for their client's death sentence to be reduced to life in prison. Should Florida's Supreme Court justices rule in favor of Hurst, nearly 400 other prisoners could have their sentences overturned as well.
"We're looking at potentially the largest number of death sentences being vacated at a single time," the Death Penalty Information Center's executive director Robert Dunham told the Post.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi clarified that though the protocol for issuing a death sentence has been deemed unconstitutional, it is not to say the state's entire death penalty is unconstitutional.
The state doesn't intend to reduce an inmate's sentence, Bondi said, "any time any aspect of the statute is held to be unconstitutional." And it's still up for debate whether the ruling would retroactively clear all current death row inmates.
Former Florida judge O.H. Eaton Jr. said it's difficult to foresee how the pending ruling on Hurst's case would impact other death row inmates, telling the Post, "It could be anything from a minor effect all the way to clearing out death row."
Source: mic.com, May 6, 2016
Former Palm Beach County jurists urge court to convert death sentences to life
A pair of former Palm Beach County jurists are among those filing a brief Tuesday urging the Florida Supreme Court to order that life sentences be imposed on almost 400 inmates awaiting execution.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead, who served on the Fourth District Court of Appeal, and Rosemary Barkett, formerly a county circuit judge who also served as a state justice, were among a handful of leading lawyers calling for the change.
Justices on Thursday will hear arguments about death row inmate Timothy Lee Hurst, whose sentence was ruled unconstitutional in January by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court ruled Hurst's right to a trial by jury was violated because a judge ordered his capital sentence after the panel voted only 7-5 in favor of the death penalty after he was convicted of killing a co-worker at a Pensacola restaurant in 1998.
Gov. Rick Scott recently signed into law a possible fix approved by state lawmakers, that requires at least 10 jurors to agree for a death sentence to be imposed.
No executions have been carried out in Florida since the high court's January ruling.
But Barkett, Anstead - joined by former Justice Gerald Kogan and 2 former American Bar Association presidents - say all 389 inmates now on death row should have their capital sentences converted to life in prison, because of the federal ruling.
Source: Palm Beach Post, May 3, 2016
Commute all death sentences, lawyers argue
Arguing that state law requires it, a who's who of prominent attorneys urged the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday to commute the death sentences of the state's nearly 400 condemned inmates to life in prison.
The cadre of attorneys, including former Florida Supreme Court justices and associations focused on capital punishment, filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Tuesday, two days before the court is slated to hear arguments in a key case that overturned the state's death-penalty sentencing structure and resulted in an overhaul of the sentencing law.
The case involves Timothy Lee Hurst, who was sentenced to death for the 1998 killing of a fast-food worker in Pensacola. Hurst was the plaintiff in a legal challenge that led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that Florida's death-penalty sentencing system was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.
State lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott hurriedly overhauled the system during this year's legislative session in an attempt to resolve the constitutional issues.
But the Florida Supreme Court, which will hear arguments Thursday in the Hurst case, is grappling with whether the U.S. Supreme Court decision should apply retroactively to the 390 inmates on death row.
Lawyers for death row inmates, including Hurst, contend that the prisoners received death sentences under what was an unconstitutional process. Lawyers for the state argue the court should consider the effect of the Hurst ruling on a case-by-case basis and have identified fewer than four dozen cases in which the Hurst ruling could apply.
In the 33-page brief filed Tuesday, the high-profile lawyers argued that a state law crafted in 1972 requires that all of the current death sentences be commuted to life imprisonment without parole. That law came in anticipation of a ruling in a case known as Furman v. Georgia that resulted in a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty.
The law provides that "in the event the death penalty in a capital felony is held to be unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court," the court having jurisdiction over a person previously sentenced to death "shall sentence such person to life imprisonment."
Lawyers signing onto Tuesday's brief included former Florida Supreme Court justices Harry Lee Anstead, Gerald Kogan and Rosemary Barkett; former American Bar Association presidents Martha Barnett and Sandy D'Alemberte, who also served as president of Florida State University; former Florida Bar Association President Hank Coxe; the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Florida Capital Resource Center; and the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University.
In Tuesday's brief, the lawyers advised the Florida justices to repeat what the court did following the Furman decision, when the death sentences of 100 inmates were reduced to life imprisonment without parole.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Hurst case, the Florida Supreme Court has heard arguments touching on the impact of the ruling in a slew of death penalty cases and has indefinitely postponed 2 scheduled executions.
Source: Orlando Sentinel, May 4, 2016