Florida’s death penalty fell under a huge cloud of uncertainty Wednesday as legal experts weigh the impact of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the state’s sentencing system as unconstitutional.
The day after the court’s 8-1 decision, chaos prevailed on many fronts in Florida:
▪ Public defenders from Miami to Tallahassee, who represent defendants in murder cases, called for a halt to all executions and trials that could result in the death penalty.
▪ The Florida Supreme Court told the state to explain why the Hurst v. Florida decision should not apply retroactively to the case of Michael Ray Lambrix, set to be executed Feb. 11 for two murders.
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▪ The veteran prosecutor in Gainesville told legislators that he’s not sure how to handle a murder case. “I don’t know what to do,” Bill Cervone said.
The role of the jury in a death-penalty case in Florida is a recommendation, not binding on a judge, but the nation’s highest court said Tuesday that the jury — not the judge — should have the final decision on every fact that results in a death sentence. The decision came in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, 37, on Death Row for killing a co-worker at a Pensacola restaurant in 1998.
Gov. Rick Scott provided no specifics on what steps the state might take or whether he would lift pending death warrants for Lambrix and a second double murderer, Mark Asay.
“We’re reviewing that decision,” Scott said Wednesday in Brandon on the second stop of a statewide bus tour to promote his tax-cut proposals. “I can tell you as a governor, it’s a solemn duty, it’s the law of land. What I think about it when I’m involved in that is the victim. Those are not easy. My heart goes out [to the victims].”
Attorney General Pam Bondi had no comment Wednesday.
Experts who closely monitor Florida’s troubled death penalty record said the state could have avoided its current problems if it had acted more than a decade ago in response to a similar case.
“It’s a self-inflicted wound,” said Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. “Unless Florida redresses this issue, it’s going to be in the national spotlight again.”
In Ring vs. Arizona in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that juries and not judges should decide the fate of defendants in capital cases. But on several occasions until the Hurst ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Florida death penalty appeals that were based on the Ring case, so the state Supreme Court said it didn’t apply.
As long ago as 2006, legislators in both parties filed bills to review and reform Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system. But they focused on a different issue: that a simple majority vote by a 12-member jury is sufficient to recommend death and that a requirement to cite aggravating circumstances to justify the death penalty, such as the severity of the crime, also does not need to be a unanimous decision.
Then-Attorney General Charlie Crist was locked in a primary fight for the Republican nomination for governor. Nicknamed “Chain-Gang Charlie” for his tough-on-crime political stances, Crist insisted no changes be made.
A Herald/Times review of 10 years of legislation turned up no bills that would have addressed the issue in the Hurst case.
“I can’t even remember that it came up,” said former Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who chaired the Criminal Justice Committee for six years, 2004-10.
A total of 390 inmates are on Death Row, but many of their sentences are on appeal. Many more cases are on trial, or are about to go to trial.
Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez said he has several dozen capital murder cases awaiting trial.
For now, he said, the Hurst decision means that a defendant could not be given a harsher sentence than life imprisonment without parole, which death-penalty opponents have sought for decades.
“There is no death penalty right now,” Martinez said. “A clarification needs to come quickly.”
If every Florida death sentence were reduced to life without parole, Martinez said, it would save taxpayers millions of dollars and avoid years of legal battles that clog court dockets.
Nancy Daniels, the public defender in Tallahassee for 25 years, said the state should suspend all legal activity on death cases immediately.
“The prudent thing to do is to put a moratorium on all pending death cases until this is clarified,” Daniels said. “Everything needs to be put on hold.”
Daniels said she believes that every Florida inmate sentenced to death after the Ring decision has a new avenue of appeal.
In the Hurst decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the Florida Supreme Court for clarification.
Legal experts said that at a minimum, Florida will have to rewrite the complex legal instructions that are explained to jurors in capital cases.
An order issued by the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday (and announced a day later) orders attorneys for the state to answer how Hurst vs. Florida applies to Lambrix’s case.
The Florida Supreme Court ordered the state to respond by Jan. 20 with answers to: “the retroactivity of Hurst, the effect of Hurst in light of the aggravating factors found by the trial court in Lambrix’s case, and whether any error in Lambrix’s case is harmless.”
An ominous legal sign for Florida is that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hurst decision also invalidated two cases that the Florida Supreme Court cited in upholding numerous death penalty cases: Spaziano v. Florida and Hildwin v. Florida.
“Time and subsequent cases have washed away the logic of Spaziano and Hildwin,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority.
The decision would appear to be vindication for Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente. She authored the dissent in the Hurst case in 2014 and wrote: “I continue to believe that, in light of Ring, Florida’s death penalty statute . . . is unconstitutional.”
Herald/Times staff writers Ernest Hooper and Kristen M. Clark, along with Times researcher Caryn Baird, contributed to this report.
Contact Steve Bousquet firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @stevebousquet.