Florida

Florida

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Alabama to Reconsider Constitutionality of Its Death Penalty Sentencing Procedure

The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding a death sentence imposed on Alabama death row prisoner Bart Johnson, and has directed the state court to reconsider the constitutionality of Alabama's death-sentencing procedures. Johnson, represented by lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), had challenged the constitutionality of his death sentence, which was imposed by a trial judge after a nonunanimous jury vote of 10-2 recommending a death sentence, as violating the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year in Hurst v. Florida. According to Johnson's Supreme Court pleadings, the trial court had instructed the jury that it did not need to unanimously agree to any particular fact that would have made Johnson eligible for the death penalty, nor did it have to identify for the court any specific aggravating factors that it found to be present in the case. Hurst ruled that Florida's capital sentencing procedures, which permitted critical factual findings necessary to impose a death sentence to be made by the trial judge, rather than the jury, violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Johnson's lawyers argued that Alabama's sentencing scheme suffers from the same constitutional defect and that, "[i]n Bart Johnson's case, like in Hurst, the judge imposed the death penalty based on finding two aggravating factors that were not clearly found by the jury." Bryan Stevenson, EJI's executive director, said that the Court's ruling could have systemic implications: "This ruling implicates all [capital] cases in Alabama. We have argued that Alabama's statute no longer conforms to current constitutional requirements. The Court's ruling today supports that view." In March, an Alabama Circuit Judge barred the death penalty in four cases on the grounds that Alabama's sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court's decision to order reconsideration of Johnson's case could also affect a court challenge currently pending in the Delaware Supreme Court over the constitutionality of its death penalty statute, which employs similar sentencing procedures. Likewise, defense lawyers in Nebraska have argued that the death penalty statute in that state — which has been repealed by the legislature pending the outcome of a ballot initiative in November — impermissibly vests key fact-finding authority in the trial judge, rather than the jury. 

Florida Judge Sentences Man to Death Under Sentencing Law That Supreme Court Ruled Unconstitutional

A Florida trial judge in St. Lucie County sentenced Eriese Tisdale to death on April 29 for the killing of a sheriff's sergeant, relying on sentencing procedures from the version of Florida's death penalty law that the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida. The jury in Tisdale's case considered the evidence in the penalty phase of Tisdale's trial under the old Florida law, voting 9-3 to recommend a death sentence without specifying the aggravating factors that would make Tisdale eligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court struck down Florida's sentencing procedure in Hurst because a judge, rather than a jury, made the factual determination of aggravating circumstances that were necessary to impose a death sentence. In response to Hurst, Florida enacted a new law, which went into effect March 7, requiring juries to make unanimous determinations of aggravating factors, and preconditioning any death sentence upon a jury vote of at least 10-2 vote in favor of death. The statute declares "If fewer than 10 jurors determine that the defendant should be sentenced to death, the jury's recommendation to the court shall be a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole." In those circumstances, the law states, "the court shall impose the recommended sentence." Tisdale's penalty phase was tried in October 2015, before the Supreme Court declared the sentencing procedures unconstitutional, and the jury's 9-3 recommendation for death came before the new law adopted the 10-2 requirement. His lawyers argued that he could not be sentenced to death because the old procedures were unconstitutional and the jury vote did not qualify as a death recommendation under the new law. But a St. Lucie County judge ruled that the jury's unanimous vote to convict Tisdale for the murder of a law enforcement official amounted to a unanimous finding of an aggravating circumstance, accepted the jury's 9-3 death recommendation, and sentenced Tisdale to death. Tisdale is the first person sentenced to death in Florida since the new law went into effect.

Florida Legislature Passes Bill Requiring Agreement of 10 Jurors Before Judge May Impose Death Sentence

UPDATE: Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law on March 7. Previously: The Florida legislature passed a bill on March 3 to restructure its death penalty statute in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst v. Florida, which declared the state's death penalty procedures unconstitutional. The bill modifies Florida's practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences without the unanimous agreement of jurors by requiring that at least ten jurors recommend death before the judge may impose a death penalty. It also directly addresses Hurst by requiring that jurors unanimously find any aggravating circumstances that the prosecution seeks to prove to make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. Previously, Florida judges made the determination whether the prosecution had proven aggravating circumstances that made the defendant eligible for the death penalty, and the statute permitted the judge to impose death based upon a simple majority recommendation or, in certain circumstances, when the jury had recommended life imprisonment. The new 10-2 requirement matches the standard applied in Alabama. Along with Delaware - which permits the court to impose death after a simple majority recommendation by the jury - these states stand alone in the country in allowing a death sentence after a jury's non-unanimous sentencing recommendation. Delaware and Alabama still permit judicial override. Delaware's system is currently under review by that state's highest court, and on March 3, an Alabama circuit court judge declared that state's sentencing procedure unconstitutional.

Mother of Murder Victim: "The Death Penalty Would Inflict Additional Pain on Us"

Duval County, Florida prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the 2013 murder of Shelby Farah (pictured), over the objections of Ms. Farah's family. After unsuccessful attempts to persuade prosecutors to non-capitally resolve the case, Darlene Farah, Ms. Farah's mother, publicly expressed her views in a recent column in TIME. Farah said, "I do not want my family to go through the years of trials and appeals that come with death-penalty cases." Instead, she wants her family to be able to, "celebrate [Shelby's] life, honor her memory and begin the lengthy healing process." Darlene Farah says her daughter would not have wanted the death penalty to be sought on her behalf, and "more killing in no way honors my daughter’s memory or provides solace to my family." Duval County is among the 2% of U.S. counties that are responsible for a majority of U.S. death sentences and is represented by a prosecutor's office that has sent more people to death row since 2009 than any other prosecutor's office in the state. Farah has asked prosecutors to accept the defense offer to plead guilty to all charges, but she says "[prosecutors'] desire for the death penalty in my daughter’s case seems so strong that they are ignoring the wishes of my family in their pursuit of it." Farah said the use of the death penalty is impeding the healing process: "Death-penalty cases are incredibly complex and drawn-out. It’s been two and a half years since my daughter’s murder, and the trial hasn’t even started...[W]e can’t start to heal and move beyond the legal process, which never seems to end." "I have seen my family torn apart since my daughter’s murder, and the idea of having to face the lengthy legal process associated with a death-penalty case is unbearable. We have endured enough pain and tragedy already."

Majority of Floridians Prefer Life Sentence to Death Penalty, 73% Would Require Unanimous Jury Vote for Death

In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down Florida's death-sentencing procedures, a new poll shows that nearly two thirds of Floridians now prefer some form of life sentence to the death penalty and nearly three-quarters favor requiring the jury to unanimously agree on the sentence before the death penalty can be imposed. The poll by Public Policy Polling found that 62% of respondents preferred some form of life in prison over the death penalty for convicted murderers, while 35% preferred the death penalty. A plurality (38%) preferred life without parole coupled with restitution payments, while an additional 24% preferred either life without parole or life with parole eligibility after 40 years. The poll comes shortly after the Supreme Court declared Florida's sentencing scheme unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida because it permitted judges, rather than juries, to determine whether the prosecution had proven factors that make a defendant eligible for the death penalty. It left open a second question as to whether jury recommendations for death had to be unanimous. As the Florida legislature considers its response to Hurst, the poll showed broad support across the political spectrum for requiring jury unanimity in sentencing. Overall, 73% of Floridians supported a unanimity requirement, including 70% of Republicans and Independents and 77% of Democrats. A Tampa Bay Times investigation this week raised questions as to the reliability of non-unanimous death sentences. The paper reported that death sentences imposed after non-unanimous jury recommendations were far more likely to be overturned and posed serious risks to the innocent. 18 of the 20 Florida exonerations for which jury data was available (90%) involved non-unanimous jury recommendations, including 3 cases in which judges overrode jury recommendations for life sentences. Stephen Harper of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University College of Law, responded to the polling results, saying, "The state legislature should follow Floridians’ lead and support a unanimous jury requirement in capital cases. Failing to do so will leave Florida’s death penalty statute vulnerable to additional costly litigation."

Study Finds Disparities in Race, Gender, and Geography in Florida Executions

Florida executions are plagued by stark racial, gender, and geographic disparities, according to a new University of North Carolina study, with executions 6.5 times more likely for murders of white female victims than for murders of black males. (See graph, left. Click to enlarge.). UNC Chapel Hill Professor Frank Baumgartner examined data from the 89 executions conducted in Florida between 1976 - when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Florida's use of the death penalty - and 2014. Baumgartner found that executions occurred disproportionately in cases involving white victims and victims who were female. While 56% of all Florida homicide victims during that period were white, 72% of all executions involved white victims. Similarly, 26% of all murder victims were female, but 43% of executions involved female victims. 71% of the black defendants executed in Florida had been convicted of murdering white victims. On the other hand, no white person had been executed in Florida for killing a black victim. Baumgartner also found that the state's use of the death penalty was geographically concentrated, with just 6 of Florida's 67 counties accounting for more than half of all executions. More than half of Florida's counties (36) have not produced any executions, and homicide rates were 31% lower in those counties. The study concludes that "factors such as the victims’ race and gender, as well as the county in which the offender was convicted, inappropriately influence who is executed in Florida....These disparities are not measured by a few percentage points of difference. Rather, they differ by orders of magnitude, clearly demonstrating that vast inequities characterize the implementation of capital punishment in Florida."

U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Florida's Death Sentencing Scheme

In an 8-1 decision in Hurst v. Florida released on January 12, the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida's capital sentencing scheme in violation of the 6th Amendment, which guarantees the right to trial by jury. "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the opinion of the Court. The jury and judge in Hurst's case followed Florida's statutory sentencing procedure, which requires only an "advisory sentence" from a jury. Florida does not require the jury to specify the factual basis of its sentencing recommendation. The sentencing judge must give "great weight" to the jury's recommendation, but only the judge ever provides written reasons why a case is eligible for a death sentence. The Court based its decision largely on Ring v. Arizona, a 2002 decision in which it struck down Arizona's sentencing scheme because a judge, rather than a jury, determined the facts necessary to impose a death sentence. While Florida's procedure adds the advisory recommendation that Arizona's lacked, the Court found the distinction, "immaterial." "As with Timothy Ring, the maximum punishment Timothy Hurst could have received without any judge-made findings was life in prison without parole. As with Ring, a judge increased Hurst’s authorized punishment based on her own factfinding. In light of Ring, we hold that Hurst’s sentence violates the Sixth Amendment." 

Harvard Law Professor Chronicles 'The Death Penalty's Last Stand'

In a recent article in Slate, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, the executive director of the university's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, says "the death penalty is collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and cruelty." He emphasizes the increasing isolation of capital punishment to a few outlier jurisdictions, particularly highlighting Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Caddo Parish received national attention when, shortly after the exoneration of Glenn Ford, who was wrongfully convicted and spent 30 years on death row, District Attorney Dale Cox said the state should "kill more people." Ogletree described the legacy of racial violence and intimidation in the parish, including that Caddo Parish, which has been responsible for 8 of Louisiana's 12 death sentences since 2010, was "the site of more lynchings of black men than all but one other county In America." Until 2011, a Confederate flag flew atop a monument to the Confederacy outside the entrance to the parish courthouse in Shreveport where jurors reported for duty. In 2015, a study (click image to enlarge) found that Caddo prosecutors struck prospective black jurors at triple the rate of other jurors. Ogletree spotlighted a number of questionable death sentences imposed on Caddo defendants who may have been innocent and framed, were intellectually disabled or mentally ill teenagers, or who suffered from serious brain damage and mental illness, and who were provided systemically deficient representation. "Caddo offers us a microcosm of what remains of the death penalty in America today," Ogletree says. 33 jurisdictions have abolished the death penalty or not carried out an execution in more than 9 years. Just six states performed executions in 2015, and three-quarters of the people who were executed last year raised serious questions about mental health or innocence. Death sentences were at a record low (49), and 14, he said, came from two states - Alabama and Florida - that allow non-unanimous jury recommendations of death. Ogletree concludes, "The death penalty in America today is the death penalty of Caddo Parish—a cruel relic of a bygone and more barbarous era. We don’t need it, and I welcome its demise."

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