U.S. Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Florida Appeal on Death Penalty Case

On May 22, the Supreme Court of United States (SCOTUS) refused Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s petition for a writ of certiorari in Florida v. Hurst. The SCOTUS refusal left intact a Florida Supreme Court ruling in the case that made it unconstitutional for a judge to impose the death penalty unless jurors unanimously recommended it.

The implications of the SCOTUS refusal have far-reaching implications for the future sentencing of capital offenders in Florida. Beyond those implications, however, this development will also affect many of Florida’s current death row inmates.

How have Florida’s death penalty sentencing practices changed?

Before January 2016, capital case juries made sentencing recommendations to the judge regarding the death penalty. However, as judges had no obligation to take the jury recommendation, they had the final say in whether a convicted offender received the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Jury recommendations required only a simple majority (7-5) among jurors.

That sentencing strategy changed after SCOTUS initially heard Hurst v. Florida. In Hurst v. Florida, a Florida judge sentenced the defendant, Timothy Hurst, to death based on a 7-5 jury recommendation. Hurst’s attorneys argued that the circumstances of this case warranted a jury’s examination to determine the appropriate sentence.

In an 8-1 decision (with Justice Alito dissenting), SCOTUS ruled that Florida’s sentencing strategy violated the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In the opinion of the Court, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”

In response, the Florida legislature drafted a revised death penalty statute that required a supermajority (10 of 12) of jurors to recommend the death penalty. The Florida Supreme Court struck the new law down, however, in two rulings (Hurst v. Florida and Perry v. Florida), stating that the law violated statutes requiring jury unanimity for the court to impose the death penalty.

It was for this ruling for which A.G. Bondi appealed to SCOTUS for a writ of certiorari, which would have led to a review of the Florida Supreme Court’s findings. This week, SCOTUS declined.

How does this decision affect future Florida death penalty sentencing?

By declining to review the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling on this matter, SCOTUS cemented the foreseeable future of our state’s death penalty sentencing practices. To impose the death penalty, a jury must unanimously recommend this action to the judge.

This clarification will provide a new level of justice for those convicted of a capital crime because judges can no longer impose the death penalty arbitrarily.

Does the SCOTUS ruling affect current death row inmates?

The recent SCOTUS decision to refuse to hear Florida’s appeal puts to rest the upheaval and confusion that has surrounded capital sentencing for the last two years. For those prisoners who have already been convicted and sentenced, however, the future remains less clear.

While this decision did not mention current death row inmates, if a 2016 decision stands, the state supreme court will not reconsider the sentencing for any inmate who had completed the direct appeal process before 2002. For the remainder of the inmates who received a death sentence without a jury majority, case reviews and resentencing may be a real possibility.

For those who were not sentenced properly under the current law, prosecutors must choose between mounting a new trial or accepting a life prison sentence. If they were unable to secure a unanimous jury recommendation in the past, a retrial may not be a worthwhile endeavor.

For help filing a death penalty appeal, call Goldman Wetzel.

If your loved one is on death row and might be eligible to file an appeal, call the criminal defense lawyers at Goldman Wetzel. We can explain your options and possibly help you file an appeal of the original sentence.

Call us today at 727-828-3900 for more information and your next steps in the process.