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Death Cases in Limbo As Florida, Delaware Courts Consider Ramifications of U.S. Supreme Court Decision

Capital cases are on hold in Florida and Delaware as their state courts consider the impact of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hurst v. Florida. The Hurst decision ruled that Florida's sentencing procedure was unconstitutional because a judge, rather than a jury, determined the aggravating factors that made a case eligible for a death sentence. The Florida Supreme Court has already delayed one Florida execution to decide whether, and to what extent, the ruling should be applied retroactively. It's decision is expected to affect the cases of more than 300 prisoners on Florida's death row. At the same time, in the absence of a lawful mechanism to conduct capital trials, Florida trial judges are delaying new trials or removing the death penalty from the case. In Delaware, one of only two states besides Florida that doesn't require a unanimous jury to impose a death sentence, Superior Court Judge Paul Wallace has asked the Delaware Supreme Court to rule on whether Hurst affects death penalty cases in that state. In requesting review by the Supreme Court, Wallace cautioned that "Delaware's capital cases must proceed only under sentencing procedures that comport with federal and state constitutional requirements for the determination of a potential sentence of death." More than two dozen capital trials - including four that are scheduled to begin in the next several months - could be put on hold if the Delaware Supreme Court agrees to take up the issue. The Florida Supreme Court stayed the February 11 execution of Cary Michael Lambrix while it decides how the decision will affect those already on death row. Meanwhile, the Florida House Criminal Justice Committee approved a measure to narrowly address the problems found in Hurst by requiring a unanimous agreement of the jury on at least one aggravating factor while the Senate is considering legislation to require unanimous jury agreement on both aggravating cirumstances and the recommendation of death. 


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Florida Holds Hearing On Capital Sentencing As Experts Urge Reform

In an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero (pictured) and ABA Death Penalty Assessment Team member Mark Schlakman call on the Florida legislature to repair the constitutional violations in Florida's capital sentencing scheme. The U.S. Supreme Court found in Hurst v. Florida that the state's sentencing process violates the Sixth Amendment because a jury does not unanimously find the aggravating factors that justify a death sentence. Cantero and Schlakman urge the legislature to enact legislation to "require unanimity for findings of aggravators and recommendations of death." Such a measure has the support of the American Bar Association, which highlighted Florida's sentencing scheme as an area of "critical concern" in a 2006 report and passed a resolution in 2015 urging all states to adopt unanimity in capital sentencing. At a Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing on January 27, public defenders, retired judges, and death penalty experts testified in favor of requiring jury unanimity in order to recommend a death sentence, saying that such a change would prevent further constitutional challenges. Florida prosecutors also testified, asking legislators to require unanimous findings of aggravating factors, and at least nine jurors to recommend a death sentence. Currently, Florida is one of just three states, along with Alabama and Delaware, that does not require a unanimous jury to impose a death sentence.


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Missouri Likely to See Change After Historic High in Executions

A decline in executions is likely in Missouri after two years of unusually high numbers. In 2014, Missouri tied with Texas for the most executions in the U.S., and it was second to Texas in 2015. However, changing attitudes about the death penalty--similar to national shifts--are evident in Missouri's sentencing trends: no one was sentenced to death in Missouri in 2014 or 2015, and less than one person per year has been sentenced to death in the past seven years. Moreover, a bill with bi-partisan support has been introduced to repeal the death penalty. It passed the Senate General Laws committee in late January. An editorial in the Columbia Daily Tribune highlighted the political diversity in the legislative support for the measure. Among those who voted the bill out of committee were two Democrats and two Republicans. Sen. Paul Wieland cited his pro-life views as a reason for support, while Sen. Rob Schaaf said, as long as it is "not fairly applied...I'm going to be opposed to the death penalty."


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Report Finds 74% of Florida Death Row Inmates Had Non-Unanimous Death Verdicts

Florida's death row would be three-quarters smaller if the state followed the practice of all but two other states and required that a jury unanimously agree that a death sentence can be imposed before a defendant can be sentenced to death. Alabama and Delaware also permit judges to impose death sentences following non-unanimous jury recommendations for death. After an 18-month investigation into the cases of Florida's 390 death-row prisoners, The Villages Daily Sun found that judges had imposed death sentences 287 times (74%) after jurors had split on whether to recommend death. The paper found that 43% of the state's death-row prisoners would have received life sentences if, as is required in Alabama, the state required a "supermajority" vote of jurors (10 or more) before the jury could recommend death. Florida's high rate of death sentencing has driven up the costs of housing the state's death row, which state officials have estimated at between $8.7 and $9.6 million annually. The state's sentencing scheme was recently struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida because its statute permitted the judge, rather than the jury, to determine whether the prosecution had proven "aggravating circumstances" that make a capital defendant eligible for a death sentence. Although Delaware, like Florida, allows a recommendation for death by a simple majority of the jury (7 out of 12), it first requires the jury to unanimously find the aggravating factors that justify a death sentence. Florida's next scheduled execution is that of Michael Ray Lambrix, set for February 11. The Florida Supreme Court has ordered briefing in Lambrix's case on how the Hurst decision affects his case and whether it should be applied retroactively to other cases. The Court has scheduled oral argument for February 2.


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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." 


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