State Politics

Former Florida Supreme Court chief justices urge court to overturn hundreds of death sentences

Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan.
Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan. AP

Three former chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court are urging the state’s high court to reduce the death sentences of 390 prison inmates to life without parole, which would abolish four decades of capital punishment in Florida.

Former chief justices Harry Lee Anstead, Rosemary Barkett and Gerald Kogan, all appointed by a Democratic governor, filed a brief Tuesday, two days before oral arguments are to be made over whether to spare the life of the inmate at the center of a precedent-setting case that has placed executions on hold.

The case involves Timothy Lee Hurst, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Cindy Harrison, a supervisor at a Popeye’s restaurant in Pensacola in 1998.

Hurst had filed a flurry of appeals through the years, and the U.S. Supreme Court finally agreed with him in January that Florida’s death penalty sentencing law was unconstitutional because it gave too little weight to the jury. As a result, the state Supreme Court must review his case and decide whether he should still be executed.

The court will hear oral arguments Thursday morning.

Citing older cases and decisions by the Legislature, the former chief justices argued that because the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the process used to impose a death sentence, it called into question the validity of the sentence itself.

“Persons previously sentenced to death for a capital felony prior to the decision in Hurst v. Florida are entitled to have their death sentences replaced by sentences of life without parole,” they concluded.

They also argued that a 1972 state law, adopted after the U.S. Supreme Court previously held capital punishment to be unconstitutional, requires all current death sentences to be commuted to life without parole.

The justices are supported by Tallahassee lawyers Sandy D’Alemberte and Martha Barnett, both former presidents of the American Bar Association; Henry (Hank) Coxe, a Jacksonville defense lawyer and former Florida Bar president; the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Florida Capital Resource Center; and the Florida Center for Capital Representation at FIU’s College of Law in Miami.

In their brief, the justices and legal experts argued that the Hurst decision “held Florida’s death penalty statute unconstitutional,” an argument that Attorney General Pam Bondi has vigorously disputed.

Bondi argues that only the sentencing method was held unconstitutional — not the death penalty itself. Bondi also contends that the Hurst decision should not be applied retroactively, not even to Hurst himself, because the Legislature in the 2016 session changed the sentencing law in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

“There should be no impediment to the imposition of a sentence in accordance with the new legislation,” Bondi’s office argued last month in calling for Hurst to be executed.

Bondi’s office also emphasized the brutality of Hurst’s crime. The victim, Harrison, weighed 86 pounds and was bound, gagged with electrical tape and stabbed at least 60 times, Bondi said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

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