On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court announced new rulings that have thrown the state’s death penalty process into some confusion that may potentially lead to new sentences for hundreds of inmates.
The Washington Post reports that the decisions were connected to a ruling in January, in which the Supreme Court found Florida’s sentencing system regarding the death penalty unconstitutional, as it reportedly gives the judge in death penalty cases too much power. This conclusion came out of the 2002 ruling in called Ring v. Arizona, in which is was decided that the constitutional right to a “speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” meant juries were responsible for accumulating the evidence in death sentence cases.
In the case under review in January, Hurst v. Florida, Timothy Lee Hurst was convicted in the killing of his Popeye’s co-worker during a robbery in 1998. The jury was split on sentencing Hurst to death, and though Florida does not require a unanimous jury for that sentence, and the jurors were told their recommendation was not binding. That left the ultimate decision up to the judge who was free to consider evidence that the jury did not, thus violating the decision made in Ring v. Arizona.
The decision that Hurst’s death sentence was unconstitutional in January put many planned executions on hold, as the circumstances at sentencing are now in question for many inmates on death row. The Thursday rulings sought to clarify whose sentence would still hold under this new decision:
The justices said that the January decision will not apply retroactively to death sentences finalized before a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving capital sentences in Arizona.
But in another opinion, the Florida Supreme Court said the ruling striking down Florida’s death penalty would apply retroactively to any inmates whose sentences were finalized after that 2002 case. That could lead to resentencing for potentially more than 200 inmates, according to the Florida Supreme Court’s estimate, a number that would exceed the entire death row populations in most states.
The constitutionality of the death penalty itself is not in question, and not every inmate convicted after 2002 will be given life sentences instead. Florida currently has the second-largest death row in the country, just behind California. In a statement, Robert Smith, director of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School, spoke to the difficulties facing the criminal justice system in Florida as it grapples with the effects of these new ruling, saying, “The upshot is that between 150 and 200 people will need to be resentenced, opening old wounds and costing taxpayers millions of dollars. You can thank Florida’s prosecutors for this situation.”