Florida

Florida

Florida Denies Relief to Prisoner Unconstitutionally Sentenced to Death, in Decision that Could Affect More Than 75 Cases

In a decision that could have broad impact on the state's death row, the Florida Supreme Court on August 10 upheld the death sentence imposed on James Hitchcock, despite his having been unconstitutionally sentenced to death. In a 6-1 ruling, the court said it would not enforce its 2016 ruling in Hurst v. State—which declared unconstitutional any death sentence imposed after one or more sentencing jurors had voted that a life sentence was the appropriate punishment—in cases that had completed the direct appeal process before June 2002. That date is when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ring v. Arizona that a capital defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to have the jury determine all facts necessary for the state to impose a death penalty. But the Florida courts did not apply Ring to death-penalty cases in the state until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death-penalty statute in 2016. At that time, in Hurst v. Florida, Justice Sonia Sotomayor reiterating that "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." When Hurst's case returned to the Florida Supreme Court later that year, the state court ruled that non-unanimous jury verdicts were unconstitutional. However, the court then ruled in an appeal brought by Mark Asay—scheduled to be executed August 24—that it would not apply Hurst to cases that pre-dated Ring. Hitchcock and other Florida death-row prisoners pressed a number of other constitutional arguments, including that death sentences imposed after non-unanimous jury votes are unreliable, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that the court's bright-line cutoff for enforcing Hurst was unconstitutionally arbitrary, violating due rocess and the right to equal protection of the law. The Hitchcock court declined to consider those arguments, dismissing them as "nothing more than arguments that Hurst v. State should be applied retroactively to [Hitchcock's] sentence." Hitchcock's case was closely watched because the Florida courts had frozen the briefing schedules for 77 similarly situated death-row prisoners who also were arguing that Hurst should be enforced in their cases. Justice Barbara J. Pariente dissented, writing, "[r]eliability is the linchpin of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, and a death sentence imposed without a unanimous jury verdict for death is inherently unreliable." She noted that Hitchcock, who was twenty years old at the time of his crime, has had four different unconstitutional death sentences since he was first tried in 1977, with the U.S. Supreme Court twice overturning the death penalty in his case. She further noted that four Florida Supreme Court justices had written that his death sentence was disproportionate and that he should be resentenced to life. “To deny Hitchcock relief when other similarly situated defendants have been granted relief amounts to a denial of due process,” she wrote.

In Lawsuit Settlement, Arizona to End Automatic Solitary Confinement for Death-Row Prisoners

Arizona will soon end its policy of automatically and indefinitely incarcerating death-row prisoners in solitary confinement, joining a growing number of states to ease draconian conditions on their state death rows. Arizona's action is part of a settlement of a federal lawsuit filed against the Department of Corrections (DOC) by death-row prisoner Scott Nordstrom (pictured), which argued that the state's death-row conditions were unconstitutionally harsh. Nordstrom's attorney, Sam Kooistra, said that the change in housing does not mean "softer treament" for condemned prisoners, but rather that they "get treated more like non-death sentence inmates do" by being afforded an individualized housing assessment based upon their conduct in prison and the risk they pose to others. 70% of the approximately 2,900 prisoners on death row in the U.S. are automatically held alone in their cells for more than 20 hours per day, with nearly two-thirds held in solitary confinement more than 22 hours per day, according to a survey of state corrections officials by The Marshall Project. Other states such as California, Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—prompted by court challenges over death-row conditions—have already begun to allow death-sentenced prisoners more time out of their cells and, in some cases, to eat meals and exercise with other inmates, have contact visits with family members, and hold prison jobs. In February, a federal appeals court declared unconstitutional Pennsylvania's long-standing practice of automatically keeping prisoners whose death sentences had been overturned in solitary confinement—sometimes for years—until they had completed retrial or resentencing proceedings and received a lesser sentence. Nine condemned prisoners in Florida have also filed suit on behalf of the more than 350 prisoners currently held on the state's death row, which asks the court to prohibit prisoners from being held in solitary confinement for indefinite duration and without a case-specific justification. Currently, Florida holds death-sentenced prisoners in solitary confinement up to 23 hours every day. Three prisoners on Louisiana's death row have filed filed a federal class action lawsuit charging that their isolation at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola amounts to a “severe denial of human fundamental needs.” Although prison officials have begun allowing death-sentenced prisoners four hours out of their cell per day, as well as some educational programming and activities with other prisoners, Betsy Ginsberg—one of the Angola prisoners’ lawyers—said the class-action lawsuit will continue to ensure that the recent changes are “constitutionally adequate, properly implemented, and permanent.” These developments in death-row conditions come in the midst of a national rethinking of the use of solitary confinement, which has come under fire as unnecessarily, psychologically debilitating, cruel, and expensive. 

New Generation of Prosecutors May Signal Shift in Death Penalty Policies

A new generation of prosecutors, elected across the country on a platform of criminal justice reform, are taking a different approach to criminal justice policies than their predecessors, including a reduction in the use of capital punishment. A Christian Science Monitor profile of these prosecutors—focusing on Mark Gonzalez (pictured), the Nueces County, Texas, district attorney—says "[f]rom Texas to Florida to Illinois, many of these young prosecutors are eschewing the death penalty, talking rehabilitation as much as punishment, and often refusing to charge people for minor offenses." Their reform measures not only create greater opportunities for rehabilitation of offenders, but also reduce costs for the county and state governments. Stanford Law Professor David Alan Sklansky said, “It does seem to be a new and significant phenomenon. It’s rare to see so many races where the district attorney is challenged, where they lose, and where they lost to candidates calling not for harsher approaches, but for more balanced and thoughtful, more restrained, more progressive approaches to punishment.” In 2016, several new prosecutors who ran on reform platforms in major death-penalty counties defeated entrenched incumbents: Kim Ogg in Harris County, Texas; Andrew Warren in Hillsborough County, Florida; and Charles Henderson in Jefferson County, Alabama all pledged to reduce the use of capital punishment. Caddo Parish, Louisiana's District Attorney James Stewart, elected in 2015, has backed away from that parish's aggressive use of the death penalty while Denver District Attorney Beth McCann and Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala, both elected in 2016, have said they would not pursue the death penalty. In May 2017, Larry Krasner, a death-penalty opponent, won the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia District Attorney, making him the favorite to win the general election in November. Kim Ogg described the reasons for her support of criminal-justice reform, saying, “In the last decade the American people have literally lost faith in the fairness of our justice system. If they think we’re rigging the system, or trying to force outcomes, then they’re not going to participate, and to me that is a huge threat to our democracy.” Gonzalez says he has not decided how he will approach the death penalty, and in the meantime is still filing death penalty cases. But, he says, “We’re trying to change things. ... The culture is changing.”

Florida Death-Row Population Drops to 12-Year Low As Jury Unanimity Ruling Takes Effect

The number of prisoners on Florida's death row is now lower than it was on June 30, 2005, as the pace of death sentencing slows and courts reverse the unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences by which numerous capital defendants had been condemned. Applying the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 ruling in Hurst v. Florida and subsequent Florida Supreme Court decisions in Hurst v. State and Perry v. State, state courts declared unconstitutional Florida's practice of permitting trial judges to impose death sentences after sentencing juries had not reached a unanimous agreement that death was the appropriate punishment. As a result, death sentences have been vacated in nearly 100 cases, and additional cases are working their way through Florida's court system. So far this year, 15 people have been removed from Florida's death row, and a 16th died after having his death sentence vacated under Hurst, while being transfered to a court hearing. The declining population on death row is not being replaced with new death sentences; the state's last death sentence was handed down in June 2016 and more than 3/4ths of death sentences imposed in the previous five years had involved non-unanimous jury votes for death. As a result, the number of prisoners housed on Florida's death row has fallen from 383 at the beginning of 2017, to 367—slightly lower than the 369 people who were on death row in 2005. Even more prisoners are expected to be removed from death row, as many of those whose death sentences have been invalidated are resentenced to life. (The Department of Corrections death-row roster only removes a prisoner from its list if the prisoner dies, receives clemency, is exonerated, or is resentenced to something other than death.) A DPIC review of Florida capital cases indicates that, through July 13, Florida courts have issued decisions involving Hurst in at least 119 cases. Those decisions have resulted in the vacation of 99 death sentences. To date, the counties most affected by the Hurst rulings have been: Duval (15 sentences); Orange (9 sentences); and Broward (9 sentences). In Duval County, 14 of the 15 death sentences reviewed (93.33%) have been vacated; in Orange County, all 9 death sentences reviewed have been vacated; and in Broward county, 7 of the 9 death sentences reviewed (77.78%) have been vacated. DPIC, in conjunction with researcher and professor Michael Radelet, has also identified at least 149 prisoners who are expected to obtain relief under the Florida court's current interpretation of Hurst, and is tracking what happens to those cases on resentencing. Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan said the resentencing hearings will present difficulties for the state's legal system: “That’s not an easy thing to go back and dig up all of this evidence and especially to dig up all the witnesses,” for a new sentencing hearing. “We have been very, very negligent in the state of Florida in handling these types of cases,” he said.

U.S. Supreme Court Lets Stand Florida Decision Barring Death Sentences Based on Non-Unanimous Jury Votes

On May 22, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Florida's petition for a writ of certiorari in Florida v. Hurst, refusing to disturb a decision of the Florida Supreme Court that had declared it unconstitutional for judges to impose death sentences after one or more jurors in the case had voted for life. The ruling effectively ends Florida prosecutors' efforts to reverse the state court ruling—which could overturn approximately 200 death sentences in the state—requiring that capital sentencing juries unanimously recommend death before the trial judge may impose a death sentence. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi had asked the high court to consider the Florida decision, arguing that the state court's "expansive reading" of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida was erroneous. In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's capital sentencing scheme, saying, "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." The Florida legislature rewrote the law to require that juries unanimously find at least one aggravating factor, making a case eligible for a death sentence, and raising the threshold for a jury recommendation of a death sentence from a simple 7-5 majority to at least 10 of the 12 jurors. The Florida Supreme Court held in October 2016 that the new law violated both the state and federal constitutions because it did not require jury unanimity before the court could impose a death sentence. Most of the 386 prisoners currently on Florida's death row were sentenced to death in violation of Hurst. However, the state court has ruled that it will not apply its decision to cases that had completed the direct appeal process before June 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that the Sixth Amendment gives capital defendants the right to have a jury find all facts that are necessary to impose the death penalty in their case. The Florida Supreme Court has already ordered more than a dozen new sentencing hearings in cases involving non-unanimous jury recommendations for death, and local prosecutors are faced with the prospect of a flood of expensive retrials in cases in which one or more jurors have already rejected the death penalty. Dave Davis, who represented Hurst, said “'[p]rosecutors 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.”

Florida Supreme Court Orders Exoneration of Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr.

The Florida Supreme Court has directed that Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. (pictured) be acquitted of the murder charges for which he was sentenced to death in 2014, making him the 159th person exonerated from death row in the United States since 1973. On May 11, 2017, the court unanimously vacated Wright's convictions for the murders of his ex-girlfriend and their son, ruling that the "purely circumstantial" evidence against him was insufficient to convict. A majority of the court joined a concurring opinion by Justice Charles Canady holding that "no rational trier of fact could have found ... beyond a reasonable doubt" that Wright was the killer. Prosecutors accused Wright of murdering Paula O'Conner—a white woman with whom he had an affair—and their 15-month-old son Alijah supposedly to "avoid a child support obligation and ... maintain a 'bachelor lifestyle.'" The court noted that "none of the evidence presented at trial directly tied Wright to the murders" and that the victim's young-adult daughter, who had a volatile relationship with the victim, also had a financial motive, having received more than $500,000 in life insurance benefits as a result of her mother's and half-brother's deaths. Much of the state's case relied on the presence of a black military glove in the home of the murder victims. While Wright, a member of the Air Force, had access to that type of glove, "the State could not prove that Wright ever wore the glove, that he left it on Paula’s couch, that it came from MacDill [the base where Wright was stationed], or that it was even used in the murders." DNA tests by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported the results as inconclusive, but independent analysis by the DNA Diagnostic Center and Bode, the private labs hired by the defense and prosecution, respectively, excluded Wright as a contributor of the DNA found on the glove. The DNA analysis did not test for the presence of the victim's daughter, whom police did not investigate. Wright was convicted of the murders, and the trial court sentenced him to death after a bare 7-5 majority of the jury voted to recommend the death penalty. The Florida Supreme Court later declared death sentences based upon non-unanimous jury recommendations to be unconstitutional. Wright is the 27th person to be exonerated from death row in Florida. Nineteen of the 21 exoneration cases from Florida in which the jury vote is known have involved a non-unanimous jury recommendation of a death sentence or a judicial override of a jury recommendation of life.

Florida House Issues Apology for 1949 Lynchings and Wrongful Convictions

In 1949, Norma Padgett, a white 17-year-old, falsely accused four young black men in Groveland, Florida of kidnapping and raping her. Nearly 70 years later, the state of Florida is apologizing to the families of the "Groveland Four," two of whom were murdered and two of whom were wrongly sentenced to death. After the false accusations, enraged white residents of Lake County went on a violent rampage, shooting at and burning the homes of black residents. The Governor sought help from the National Guard to quell the violence. One of the falsely accused young men, Ernest Thomas, escaped from the county jail and was shot dead by an angry mob of 1,000 men led by Lake County sheriff Willis V. McCall. Thomas was shot 400 times. The three others who had been falsely accused were beaten into giving false confessions, then quickly tried and convicted by an all-white jury. The youngest, Charles Greenlee, who was only 16 years old, was sentenced to life in prison. Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, both Army veterans, were sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed their convictions and ordered a new trial. During their transport from the county prison for court proceedings, Sheriff McCall claimed the pair tried to escape and shot both men, killing Shepherd. Irvin played dead, survived the shooting, and was again tried and sentenced to death. Irvin received a last-minute reprieve from execution and his sentence was commuted by the Governor. Greenlee and Irvin were both granted parole in the 1960s. Irvin died in 1970 and Greenlee in 2012. The Groveland Four, as the men came to be known, were finally given a formal apology from the Florida House of Representatives on April 19, 2017, nearly 70 years after they were first accused. Rep. Bobby DuBose (D-Fort Lauderdale), sponsored the bill and said, "This resolution, while seemingly minute, symbolizes the great state of Florida looking those families in the eyes — families, with children, who grew up not knowing their fathers but only knew their records. This resolution is us simply saying, ‘We’re sorry’ — understanding we will never know or make up for the pain we have caused." The resolution, which says the Groveland Four, “were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history,” and calls on Gov. Rick Scott to expedite posthumous pardons, passed the House unanimously. The Senate is expected to vote soon on its version of the bill.

Poll Shows Orange and Osceola County Voters Prefer Life Sentences Over Death Penalty

A new poll of voters in Orange and Osceola counties in Florida—taken in the wake of Governor Rick Scott's removal of their locally elected State Attorney Aramis Ayala (pictured) from 22 homicide cases after she announced that her office would not pursue the death penalty—shows that the counties' voters overwhelmingly prefer the use of life imprisonment over the death penalty as punishment for murder. The poll by Public Policy Polling, released on April 10, found that 62% of Orange and Osceola county respondents preferred some form of life in prison for those convicted of first-degree murder, while just 31% preferred the death penalty. Ayala's March 17 decision not to seek the death penalty in any murder cases drew praise from the Florida Black Caucus and local civil rights groups, but provoked an immediate backlash from death penalty proponents. Republican Governor Rick Scott removed Ayala—a Democrat and the state's only locally elected African-American prosecutor—from 22 murder cases and replaced her with State Attorney Brad King, a white Republican prosecutor from a neighboring judicial district. The Public Policy Polling survey found a preference for life sentences across all racial, gender, and age groups and political affiliations. 73% of black voters preferred some form of life sentence as the punishment for murder, as compared to 19% who preferred the death penalty. Whites and Latinos also preferred life sentences over the death penalty, both by margins of 29 percentage points. The preference for life sentences transcended party affiliation, although there were clear partisan differences. 76% of Democrats preferred life sentences, while 21% favored the death penalty; Independents preferred life sentences by a margin of 22 percentage points (55%-33%); and Republicans preferred life sentences by 5 percentage points (49%-44%). A majority of voters also supported a State Attorney taking a "data-driven" approach to reducing bias in sentencing and considering costs to taxpayers and the effect on victims' families when deciding whether to seek a death sentence. Kenneth B. Nunn, a professor of law at University of Florida's Levin College of Law, said, “These results clearly show that Orange and Osceola voters strongly prefer life sentences over the death penalty. State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s position on the death penalty is very much in line with the position of her constituents.” Governor Scott lost Orange County by 12 percentage points and Osceola County by 9 percentage points in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

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