U.S. Supreme Court rejects Florida's appeal over death penalty unanimity case

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PHOTO VIA FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
  • Photo via Florida Department of Corrections
Bolstering a state law requiring unanimous jury recommendations in death penalty cases, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to consider an appeal by Attorney General Pam Bondi on the issue.

The court's decision to deny what is known as a “writ of certiorari” essentially cements a state law enacted this year in response to a seminal Florida Supreme Court decision in a case involving convicted murderer Timothy Lee Hurst.

That Florida Supreme Court ruling and the subsequent law said juries need to make unanimous recommendations before judges can sentence defendants to death. As is common, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday did not give reasons for turning down Bondi's appeal of the Florida Supreme Court ruling.

“It would be hard to read exactly what exactly the U.S. Supreme Court meant by it, except that it will probably end most of the state's litigation with regard to these issues,” said Pete Mills, an assistant state attorney in the 10th Judicial Circuit who also serves as chairman of the Florida Public Defenders Association Death Penalty Steering Committee.

Hurst, who was sent to Death Row for a 1998 murder in Pensacola, has been at the center of two major rulings that found Florida's death-penalty sentencing system unconstitutional.

In an appeal by Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court early last year struck down the state's system of allowing judges, instead of juries, to find the facts necessary to impose the death penalty. The court found the state's system was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, and sent the case back to the Florida Supreme Court.

At the time of the January 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Florida's system allowed jurors by a simple majority to recommend the death penalty. Judges would then make findings of fact that "sufficient" aggravating factors, not outweighed by mitigating circumstances, existed for the death sentence to be imposed, a process known as "weighing."

Florida lawmakers in 2016 hurriedly rewrote the law to address the U.S. Supreme Court decision, requiring jurors to unanimously find that at least one aggravating factor exists before a defendant can be eligible for a death sentence and requiring that at least 10 of 12 jurors recommend death for the sentence to be imposed.

In October, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the statute was unconstitutional because it did not require unanimous jury recommendations about imposing the death penalty, something not addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Bondi's office in December asked the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the Florida court's ruling.

In its request for discretionary review, the state argued that Florida court's “expansive reading” of the U.S. court's decision in the Hurst case was erroneous.

Hurst was sentenced to death for the 1998 killing of fast-food worker Cynthia Harrison in Pensacola. Harrison, an assistant manager at a Popeye's Fried Chicken restaurant where Hurst worked, was bound, gagged and stabbed more than 60 times. Her body was found in a freezer.

A jury in 2000 recommended the death penalty for Hurst, now 38. After the state Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing, a jury recommended death by a vote of 7-5 in 2012.

In its October ruling in the Hurst case deciding that death-penalty recommendations must be unanimous, the Florida Supreme Court relied both on state and federal constitutional guarantees to the right to a trial by jury.

The Florida court decision regarding unanimity will likely result in new penalty-phase hearings for about 55 percent of Florida's 386 Death Row inmates.

The state court has already ordered new sentencing hearings for numerous cases involving non-unanimous jury recommendations, and Monday's decision by the federal court takes the unanimity issue off the table, according to defense lawyers.

“It's certainly good news for Mr. Hurst,” said Dave Davis, a recently retired assistant public defender in the 2nd Judicial Circuit who represented Hurst.

Davis and other public defenders, who warned lawmakers that the lack of unanimity in the 2016 law would not withstand court scrutiny, were relieved but not surprised by the U.S. court's refusal to take up the case Monday.

With more than 100 cases poised to be sent back to lower courts, prosecutors are now faced with seeking capital punishment or life imprisonment. Some of the cases are decades old, posing problems with witnesses and evidence for prosecutors.

“Prosecutors are going to have to decide is it worth the effort to try to get death again. They're going to have to examine their evidence … and decide what the likelihood is that they're going to get 12 jurors to decide death,” Davis said.

The new requirement is especially relevant in the Hurst case, where a jury has never unanimously recommended the death penalty, Davis pointed out.

“Prosecutors have a tough problem here,” he said. “Some cases just get old. Can you find witnesses in a case that's 14 or 15 years old? … Logistical and practical problems that crop up with cases that are in some cases 20 years old.”

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