Florida

Florida

Supreme Court Strikes Down Florida's Strict IQ Cutoff for Death Penalty

On May 27, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Hall v. Florida that Florida's strict IQ cutoff for determining intellectual disability in capital cases is unconstitutional. The Court concluded, "Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world." In 2002, the Court banned the execution of people with "mental retardation," but allowed states leeway in selecting a process for determining who would qualify for that exemption. According to Florida's Supreme Court, defendants with an IQ even one point above 70 cannot be considered intellectually disabled, even though most states allow for a margin of error in such tests. The Supreme Court's ruling stated that Florida's strict rule "disregards established medical practice" and noted that the "vast majority of states" rejected such a narrow interpretation of IQ scores. The Court held that, "When a defendant's IQ test score falls within the test's acknowledged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disability, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits." Hall will receive a new hearing on his intellectual disability claim.

Florida Passes Bill to Compensate Exonerated Death Row Inmate

As the last act of its legislative session, the Florida Senate passed a bill allowing the state to compensate James Richardson, who had been wrongfully sentenced to death and incarcerated for 21 years. In 1967, Richardson, who is black, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury for the murder of his seven children. Many years later, a former babysitter confessed to the crime, prompting an investigation that revealed that witnesses had been beaten to convince them to falsely testify against Richardson. In 1989, Richardson's conviction was thrown out and he was released. Richardson, now a frail old man, had not been able to receive compensation for this injustice because the evidence from his case had been lost or destroyed. Now he will be able to apply for compensation based on the special prosecutor's investigation and the order to release him from prison. Sen. Geraldine Thompson, a sponsor of the bill, said "This will allow him to have an opportunity to revisit some dreams that were deferred early in his very young life." Robert Barrar, an attorney who has represented Richardson, said, “The Legislature did the right thing. To right an injustice for all those years that were taken away from him.”

NEW RESOURCES: Latest "Death Row, USA" Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA shows the total death row population continuing to decline in size. The U.S. death-row population decreased from 3,108 on April 1, 2013, to 3,095 on July 1, 2013. The new total represented a 12% decrease from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,517. The states with the largest death rows were California (733), Florida (412), Texas (292), Pennsylvania (197), and Alabama (197). In the past 10 years, the size of Texas's death row has shrunk 36%; Pennsylvania's death row has declined 18%; on the other hand, California's death row has increased 17% in that time. The report also contains racial breakdowns on death row. The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (71%), among those states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races.

Supreme Court to Examine Florida's Narrow Standard for Mental Retardation

On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Hall v. Florida, a case addressing the strict standard for intellectual disability that Florida uses to determine if inmates are exempt from execution. Under the Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, individuals with intellectual disabilities (mental retardation) are constitutionally barred from receiving the death penalty. The decision "le[ft] to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction," resulting in various standards for determining intellectual disabilities across the states. Unlike almost all other states, Florida rigidly requires an IQ of 70 or below to demonstrate mental retardation, with no allowance for the test's margin of error. Freddie Hall, the death-row petitioner in this case, was first diagnosed with intellecutal disabilities in elementary school. Prior to the Atkins, a Florida court determined that “Freddie Lee Hall has been mentally retarded his entire life.” Despite these findings, Hall is still facing execution. Cornell Law Professor John Blume said, while the issue is limited, the case is important, "to make clear that states cannot narrow a categorical ban created by the Supreme Court intended to protect a vulnerable group from wrongful execution."

Lethal Injection Questions Prompt Official Reviews in Louisiana, Florida, Ohio

Questions about the appropriateness of new lethal injection methods have recently stayed executions in Louisiana and Ohio and caused the Florida Supreme Court to order a hearing prior to the next execution there. In Louisiana, Christopher Sepulvado received a 90-day stay to allow a federal court to determine whether the state's new protocol violates his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. He was scheduled to be executed on February 5. The Florida Supreme Court ordered a similiar hearing to be held before Paul Howell's scheduled execution on February 26 to examine the state's new protocol. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich ordered an 8-month stay of execution for Gregory Lott so the state can complete a review of its new lethal injection procedure, first used to execute Dennis McGuire on January 16, resulting in gasping and choking sounds from the inmate. The common drug in question in all three states is midazolam, a sedative used as the first drug in a 2- or 3-drug protocol. 

Two Defendants from the Same Case Illustrate Inequities in Florida's Death Penalty

In a recent article in the Atlantic, Marc Bookman compared the path through the justice system of two co-defendants sentenced to death in Florida after committing murder in 1977. Beauford White was electrocuted in 1987, despite his trial jury voting 12-0 for a life sentence. The trial judge overrode that recommendation and imposed death. White's co-defendant, John Ferguson, lived for another 26 years before being executed in 2013. His jury voted 12-0 for death. The foreman of White's jury later said, "We voted for life because we did not see a shred of evidence indicating that White himself actually took part in the killing." Two dissenting U.S. Supreme Court Justices called White's execution "inexcusable." Ferguson, on the other hand, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia by seven different doctors before the murder that sent him to death row, but courts eventually found him competent enough to be executed. The cases illustrate the wide disparities in the application of the death penalty.

Upcoming Death Penalty Events in 2014

As the new year begins, there are several notable events related to the death penalty likely to occur in the next few months. The first execution of the year is scheduled for January 7 in Florida. The execution of Askari Muhammad had originally been scheduled for December 3, 2013, but was stayed due to a challenge to the state's new execution protocol. The Florida Supreme Court approved the new protocol, and the execution was rescheduled, though legal challenges are continuing in federal court. Ohio has scheduled the execution of Dennis McGuire for January 16, and the state plans to use a lethal injection protocol never tried before in any state. Ohio will use midazolam and hydromorphone, drugs formerly listed in the state's backup procedure. This latest change in Ohio was caused by a shortage of the drug pentobarbital, after restrictions on its use were imposed by its European manufacturer. On January 22, Texas is scheduled to execute Edgar Tamayo, a Mexican citizen who was denied consular access at the time of his arrest, in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Objections to the execution have been raised by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and by numerous other governments. On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Hall v. Florida, a challenge to Florida's strict procedure for determining intellectual disability in capital cases. The Court previously ruled that intellectually disabled defendants are barred from execution.

DPIC Releases 2013 Report, Showing Marked Decline in Death Penalty Use

On December 19, the Death Penalty Information Center released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2013: Year End Report." In 2013, executions declined, fewer states imposed death sentences, and the size of death row decreased compared to the previous year. The number of states with the death penalty also dropped, and public support for capital punishment registered a 40-year low. There were 39 executions in the U.S., marking only the second time in 19 years that there were less than 40. Just two states, Texas (16) and Florida (7), were responsible for 59% of the executions. The number of death sentences (80) remained near record lows, and several major death penalty states, inclucing Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana, imposed no death sentences this year. Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment. “Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “The recurrent problems of the death penalty have made its application rare, isolated, and often delayed for decades. More states will likely reconsider the wisdom of retaining this expensive and ineffectual practice.”

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