|Florida's death chamber|
The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that more than half the people on Florida's death row are entitled to a new sentencing hearing because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that found the state's death penalty unconstitutional.
The decision covers more than 200 inmates — and includes all of those who were sentenced after 2002 or whose appeals were not final by that year.
It is a legal decision that death row inmates, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the families of murder victims have awaited since January, when it became clear that Florida needed to rework its death penalty statute to bring it into line with the way other states handled those cases, specifically by requiring that juries — not judges —make the key findings required to impose a death sentence.
It also suggests that trial courts across Florida are about to be swamped by death row inmates, asking to be resentenced.
All those resentencings would be a Herculean task for trial judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys across the state, said Orange-Osceola Public Defender Robert Wesley who predicted that they could create a backlog that might take ten years to unjam.
The ruling applies to more than 40 Central Florida convicted murderers.
They include Bessman Okafor, who in 2012 murdered an Orange County man who was about to testify against him at a home invasion trial; ax murderer John Buzia, a handyman convicted of killing an elderly Seminole County man in 2004; and Michael Gordon Reynolds, who beat and stabbed to death a Seminole County father, mother and 11-year-old daughter in the community of Geneva in 1998.
A moratorium since January
Thursday's decision is the result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January.
By a vote of 8-1, that court ruled that jurors – not a judge – must specifically identify why someone convicted of a capital crime should be put to death.
That case involved Timothy Lee Hurst, a Pensacola man convicted of murdering his boss at a Popeyes Fried Chicken restaurant in 1998 with a box cutter then putting her body in a freezer.
The high court found that Florida's death penalty statute was unconstitutional but left it to the Florida Supreme Court to decide whether the ruling should apply retroactively.
The state has not executed an inmate since then.
The state supreme court has issued several death penalty rulings in the interim. Some hinted that it would interpret the Hurst decision broadly but each stopped short of spelling it out.
On Thursday, that changed. The court laid it out: Every death penalty handed down in Florida since 2002 is unconstitutional. That's 55 percent of the state's death row population.
That's because in 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling – Ring v. Arizona – that generally said the same thing to the state of Arizona that the high court said to Florida in the Hurst decision 14 years later: Juries – not judges – must decide whether the death penalty is appropriate.
One of the factors the Florida Supreme Court had to take into consideration was how disruptive to the day-to-day workings of Florida's court system their decision would be.
Invalidating every death sentence as unconstitutional, the justices concluded, would be too burdensome. That's why they limited it to those inmates who were sentenced after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Ring decision in 2002.
Even so, Thursday's decision suggests that any Florida inmate who was given the death penalty after the 2002 is entitled to be resentenced.
That would require a mini-trial in each case at which a new jury would listen to evidence then rule whether the evidence justified the death penalty.
Source: Orlando Sentinel, Rene Stutzman and Gal Tziperman Lotan, December 22, 2016
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