FEATURED POST

America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

Image
With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Florida Supreme Court strikes blow to death row inmates

Florida's death chamber
Florida's death chamber
WEST PALM BEACH -- In a ruling that could prevent as many as 100 condemned inmates from seeking life sentences, the Florida Supreme Court this week rejected arguments that constitutional flaws with the state’s death penalty should benefit all 362 inmates on death row.

The much anticipated ruling strikes a blow to efforts to block the scheduled Aug. 24 execution of Mark James Asay for the 1987 shooting deaths of two Jacksonville men. It also will make it more difficult for all but one of seven men on death row for decades-old Palm Beach County murders to win life sentences as a result of the legal turmoil roiling the state’s death penalty.

While acknowledging that Asay and others may have other grounds to appeal their death sentences, the ruling is both far-reaching and troubling, said Robert Dunham, a lawyer and executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.

“Now what you have is a situation in which for about 200 cases there may be costly resentencings and for another significant number of cases there are going to be unconstitutional executions,” Dunham said.

The issue was whether all death row inmates should benefit from rulings by the U.S. and Florida supreme courts that struck down the state’s death penalty as unconstitutional because it didn’t require that juries unanimously agree that a defendant should be executed.

In deciding a case involving the 1976 strangulation death of a 13-year-old Orlando-area girl, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday stuck by its previous decisions that only those sentenced after June 24, 2002, could seek new sentencing hearings.

With only Justice Barbara Pariente dissenting, the state high court rejected arguments that the cut-off date was arbitrary. That is the date the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case, Ring v. Arizona. Since then, Florida judges have been on notice its sentencing scheme was flawed, the court previously ruled.

In her dissent, Pariente said the cut-off date violates the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment. All inmates who were sentenced to death by split juries should be resentenced, she argued.

“Reliability is the linchpin of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, and a death sentence imposed without a unanimous jury verdict for death is inherently unreliable,” she wrote.

The case, involving 61-year-old James Earnest Hitchcock, who was sentenced to death on the basis of a 10-2 jury recommendation for raping and killing his brother’s daughter, was closely watched by death penalty opponents because the high court signaled it might reverse course. It stayed the cases of 77 inmates who also were arguing that all inmates should be able to seek new sentencing hearings. Dunham estimated roughly 20 other inmates would be impacted.

An attorney for Leroy Pooler, who is on death row for the 1995 slaying of his ex-girlfriend in West Palm Beach, mentioned Hitchcock’s case in July when she appealed to Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath to grant Pooler a new sentencing hearing. Attorney Linda McDermott also is arguing that it would be unconstitutional to execute Pooler because he is mentally disabled.

Like all but two other inmates sentenced to death for Palm Beach County murders, Pooler’s conviction became final before Ring was decided and therefore would not be entitled to a new sentencing hearing as a result of the Hitchcock ruling.

Carlton Francis, who was sentenced to death for the 1997 stabbing deaths of 66-year-old twin sisters Claire Brunt and Bernice Flegel in their West Palm Beach home, could win a new sentencing hearing because his conviction became final after July 2002.

Double-murderer Duane Owen could escape one death sentence but not another under the ruling.

His conviction for the 1984 bludgeoning death of single mother Georgianna Worden became final before Ring. However, he could win a new sentencing hearing for the rape and fatal stabbing of 14-year-old babysitter Karen Slattery months earlier. That conviction became final six months after Ring was decided.

Efforts by Noberto Pietri to escape death row for fatally shooting West Palm Beach motorcycle officer Brian Chappell in 1988 were rejected by a Palm Beach County judge in March. Pietri’s conviction became final before Ring.

The various scenarios underscore how arbitrary the system has become, Dunham said.

“The clearest and fairest solution would be not to execute people who were unconstitutionally sentenced to death,” he said.

Source: Palm Beach Post, Jane Musgrave, August 11, 2017


Florida Denies Relief to Prisoner Unconstitutionally Sentenced to Death, in Decision that Could Affect More Than 75 Cases


Jury box
In a decision that could have broad impact on the state's death row, the Florida Supreme Court on August 10 upheld the death sentence imposed on James Hitchcock, despite his having been unconstitutionally sentenced to death. In a 6-1 ruling, the court said it would not enforce its 2016 ruling in Hurst v. State—which declared unconstitutional any death sentence imposed after one or more sentencing jurors had voted that a life sentence was the appropriate punishment—in cases that had completed the direct appeal process before June 2002. That date is when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ring v. Arizona that a capital defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to have the jury determine all facts necessary for the state to impose a death penalty. But the Florida courts did not apply Ring to death-penalty cases in the state until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death-penalty statute in 2016. At that time, in Hurst v. Florida, Justice Sonia Sotomayor reiterating that "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." When Hurst's case returned to the Florida Supreme Court later that year, the state court ruled that non-unanimous jury verdicts were unconstitutional. However, the court then ruled in an appeal brought by Mark Asay—scheduled to be executed August 24—that it would not apply Hurst to cases that pre-dated Ring. Hitchcock and other Florida death-row prisoners pressed a number of other constitutional arguments, including that death sentences imposed after non-unanimous jury votes are unreliable, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that the court's bright-line cutoff for enforcing Hurst was unconstitutionally arbitrary, violating due process and the right to equal protection of the law. The Hitchcock court declined to consider those arguments, dismissing them as "nothing more than arguments that Hurst v. State should be applied retroactively to [Hitchcock's] sentence." Hitchcock's case was closely watched because the Florida courts had frozen the briefing schedules for 77 similarly situated death-row prisoners who also were arguing that Hurst should be enforced in their cases. Justice Barbara J. Pariente dissented, writing, "[r]eliability is the linchpin of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, and a death sentence imposed without a unanimous jury verdict for death is inherently unreliable." She noted that Hitchcock, who was twenty years old at the time of his crime, has had four different unconstitutional death sentences since he was first tried in 1977, with the U.S. Supreme Court twice overturning the death penalty in his case. She further noted that four Florida Supreme Court justices had written that his death sentence was disproportionate and that he should be resentenced to life. “To deny Hitchcock relief when other similarly situated defendants have been granted relief amounts to a denial of due process,” she wrote.

Though concurring in the outcome, Justice Joseph Lewis criticized the court for "tumbl[ing] down the dizzying rabbit hole of untenable line drawing" and described the line the court chose to draw as "determinative [but] arbitrary." Its approach, he wrote, risks “wrongfully executing those defendants” who "properly preserved challenges to their unconstitutional sentences through trial and direct appeal," before the Florida courts recognized the unconstitutionality of the state's death-penalty practices. “'[T]wo wrongs don’t make a right,'” Lewis wrote, "yet, this Court essentially condones that outcome with its very limited interpretation of Hurst’s retroactivity and application.” 

(J. Saunders, "Florida Supreme Court rejects resentencing appeal by Orange County man on death row," News Service of Florida, August 11, 2017; J. Musgrave, "Florida Supreme Court strikes blow to death row inmates," Palm Beach Post, August 11, 2017.) Read the Florida Supreme Court's opinion in Hitchcock v. Florida, No. SC17-445 (Fla. Aug. 10, 2017). 

Source: Death Penalty Information Center, August 11, 2017

⚑ | Report an error, an omission, a typo; suggest a story or a new angle to an existing story; submit a piece, a comment; recommend a resource; contact the webmaster, contact us: deathpenaltynews@gmail.com.


Opposed to Capital Punishment? Help us keep this blog up and running! DONATE!

Most Viewed (Last 7 Days)

Texas: With a man's execution days away, his victims react with fury or forgiveness

Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles rejects clemency for Chris Young

Texas executes Christopher Young

Ohio executes Robert Van Hook

The Aum Shinrikyo Executions: Why Now?

Execution date pushed back for Texas 7 escapee after paperwork error on death warrant

20 Minutes to Death: Record of the Last Execution in France

Indonesia: Gay couple publicly whipped after vigilante mob drags them out of beauty salon

Fentanyl And The Death Penalty

Saudi Arabia executes seven people in one day