Court exposes death penalty flaws
For decades, Florida’s leaders have clung to an error-prone and legally suspect process to determine the state’s most brutal sanction.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Tuesday, invalidating a key element of Florida’s death penalty machine, should spark a meaningful debate about the state’s commitment to a fundamentally flawed and unjust process — or, at the very least, a renewed resolve to ensure that the death penalty is administered in a fair and constitutionally sound manner.
The high court’s ruling, which invalidated the death sentence of Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of murder in 1998, wasn’t much of a surprise. Under Florida law, death-penalty trials follow the same two-step process that every other state uses — first, jurors determine guilt and then, after hearing more evidence, vote for the death penalty or life in prison without parole. But Florida’s law includes a weird quirk that gives trial judges the ability to override the jury’s recommendation, and levy a death sentence even if the jury votes for life without parole.
In its Tuesday ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said that setup violates a 2002 decision declaring that juries should determine that a particular crime merits the death penalty, beyond a reasonable doubt. That should, in turn, raise the question of why the justices allowed Florida to continue sentencing and executing people under its flawed statutes for so long.
More importantly, it casts a sharp light on just how rickety, inconsistent and arbitrary the application of the death penalty can be. And that’s before you consider the strongest evidence against the death penalty — the fact that, since 1973, Florida has sent at least 24 people to death row whose convictions were later thrown out.
This week, legal officials across the state are debating the impact of the Hurst decision. Some have said they believe the ruling will impact only those cases that are still in the initial phases of appeal. Seventh Circuit Public Defender Jim Purdy says differently: He believes Florida law clearly requires the sentences of all 390 people on death row to be reduced to life in prison.
Florida must also resolve a question left unanswered by the Hurst decision: Whether juries can decide a death sentence on anything less than a unanimous vote. (The Hurst jury was split 7-5 in favor of death.) Out of the 31 states that impose capital punishment, Florida is the only one that allows a simple majority of jurors to recommend death sentences. That standard in the penalty phase runs oddly counter to the earlier phase in which juries must be unanimous on the question of a defendant’s guilt or innocence.
Now that the Supreme Court has placed capital sentencing decisions squarely in the hands of juries, it becomes paramount that Florida ensures there is no reasonable doubt involved. If government is to exercise its power to take the life of a citizen it must be held to the highest standards of due process. Thus, the Legislature should removing lingering questions by passing SB 330, sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, that would make it clear that unanimous votes are required in death sentences.
And while the legal ramifications of the Hurst decision are filtering through Florida’s justice system, Gov. Rick Scott should put all executions on hold, just as then-Gov. Jeb Bush did in 2002.
Reprinted from the Panama City News Herald
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