When the U.S. Supreme Court this week invalidated Florida’s death-penalty process, justices were telling the state to put jurors back in control of deciding who gets the ultimate punishment and who does not.
Florida is an outlier — no surprise there. Justices ruled unconstitutional the state’s unique system that gives judges the ultimate power to impose the death penalty. That power belongs to the jurors, the court said in an 8-1 decision that united both liberal justices and most of the conservatives on the high court. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. cast the dissenting vote.
And with this ruling, the relatively smooth ride that state lawmakers were aiming for during this legislative session in Tallahassee just got a little bumpier. In fact, the court’s decision has thrown much of the legal system into uncertainty, sending defense lawyers, prosecutors, the state attorney general’s office, legislators and Death Row inmates themselves scrambling to figure out where to go from here.
This case dates to 1998, when Timothy Lee Hurst was convicted of murdering his boss at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant. The jury, voting 7-5, recommended death. Jurors cited two aggravating circumstances in making their recommendation. But it is not clear if all seven agreed on both.
The jury was told that, despite its recommendation, the final decision would be left to the judge, who could consider evidence that the jury did not.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the decision to sentence Hurst to death must be based “on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s fact-finding. Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional.”
Florida’s approach reduces the role of a jury to an advisory position, simply making a recommendation to the judge. This is one of only four states that give judges unique authority either to make the final call or, as can happen in Alabama, overrule a jury’s findings for or against the death penalty.
The Constitution calls for “a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”
Now, in Florida, the search is on for what’s next.
Most immediately, it is incumbent on state lawmakers, already in session in Tallahassee, to pass clear legislation to ensure that Florida’s death-penalty process is in compliance. They should work closely with Attorney General Pam Bondi.
The Florida Supreme Court wants the state to defend its plans to execute murderer Michael Ray Lambrix. He’s scheduled to die on Feb. 11 for a double murder. Lambrix’s lawyers are seeking an indefinite stay of execution. Ms. Bondi, in response, said that because Lambrix used a series of delaying tactics to avoid execution that his court-ordered fate should not be put off any longer.
But the U.S. Supreme Court’s finding of unconstitutionality is no mere tactic. Its very pointed and resolute ruling leaves little room to do anything else but place a stay on this and all other executions until the issue of whether it will apply to those already sentenced to die can be determined. And in a state that continues to lead the nation in exonerations of wrongfully convicted Death Row inmates, freed before the needle entered their arm, the court decision is just one more imperative for Florida to get it right first.