|Florida's death chamber|
Florida’s top court struck down part of the state’s capital-punishment law by ruling that only a unanimous jury may recommend a death sentence, bringing the state in line with most of the country.
Dozens of the state’s death row inmates may be eligible for resentencing under the new requirement, legal experts said.
“This requirement will dispel most, if not all, doubts about the future validity and long-term viability of the death penalty in Florida,” the Florida Supreme Court wrote in one of two 5-2 rulings issued Friday.
The two rulings, both unsigned, amounted to the second overhaul of the state’s death-penalty regime this year. Until recently, judges in Florida weren’t bound by jury recommendations in death-penalty cases, and recommendations needed not be unanimous.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that Florida’s death-penalty law violated the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury, because it allowed judges to find facts in support of death sentences, independent of a jury.
The Florida legislature updated its death-penalty law soon after the ruling, prohibiting judges from overriding jury recommendations. But the law allowed a jury to recommend a death sentence with the vote of 10 of its 12 members.
The Florida Supreme Court on ruled on Friday that a jury “must unanimously recommend a sentence of death” in light of the right to a trial by jury.
An inmate, Larry D. Perry, who is charged with killing his infant son, challenged the law after the state said it would seek the death penalty. J. Edwin Mills, a lawyer for Mr. Perry, said that, while he supports the death penalty, “I feel very strongly it has to pass constitutional muster.”
Whitney Ray, a spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, said the office was reviewing the ruling.
“But in the meantime Florida juries must make unanimous decisions in capital cases as to the appropriateness of the death penalty,” she said in an email.
In a second case, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing for Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of murdering a Popeye’s restaurant co-worker, Cynthia Harrison, during a 1998 robbery, stabbing her more than 60 times.
A jury recommended a death sentence for Mr. Hurst by a vote of seven to five. The judge who sentenced him to die cited Mr. Hurst’s involvement in a robbery at the time of the killing as a strong factor in support of capital punishment, even though Mr. Hurst had not been charged or convicted of robbery.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January came in Mr. Hurst’s case.
Mr. Hurst will face execution only if a jury unanimously recommends it based on “aggravating factors” proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the Florida Supreme Court held on Friday.
The same goes for the nearly 400 other death row inmates in the state. Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University, saidmost existing death sentences are now invalid.
“Except in a few outlier cases, the state is going to have to conduct new sentencing hearings before executing anyone,” he said.
The most recent execution was in January, days before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Mr. Hurst’s case.
Alabama is now the only state where judges can impose death sentences absent a unanimous jury finding in favor. In August, Delaware’s high court struck down a state law similar to Florida’s.
Source: The Wall Street Journal, Joe Palazzolo, October 14, 2016
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