Death Penalty

Overturning 2016 precedent, Florida top court says jury unanimity not needed for death penalty

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The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a 2016 decision and ruled that judges may impose the death penalty even when jurors do not unanimously recommend it.

The Tampa Bay Times called the Jan. 23 decision “a stunning reversal” while Slate deemed it a “decision of extraordinary breadth.” The Associated Press and the Sun Sentinel also have coverage.

In reaching its decision, the court effectively tossed rules that limited its ability to overturn precedent, making it likely the court will move rightward, according to Slate’s analysis.

The new decision would allow state lawmakers to repeal a law implementing the 2016 decision, which had required unanimous jury recommendations before judges could impose the death penalty.

The overturned 2016 decision, Hurst v. Florida, had followed a January 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down Florida’s capital sentencing scheme. That scheme allowed juries to render “advisory sentences” in death cases and judges to determine aggravating and mitigating factors.

The U.S. Supreme Court said the Sixth Amendment requires jurors, rather than judges, to find each fact necessary to impose the death sentence. A mere recommendation is not enough, the court said.

On remand, the Florida Supreme Court went further than the U.S. Supreme Court’s requirements. The Florida court said in 2016 that jurors must be unanimous on the existence of any aggravating factor meriting the death penalty, on whether the aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors and on the death-penalty recommendation itself.

On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court said the 2016 decision “got it wrong,” and it was overruling the decision, except for its requirement that a jury must unanimously find an aggravating circumstance supporting the death penalty.

“Last, lest there be any doubt,” the majority said, “we hold that our state constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment … does not require a unanimous jury recommendation—or any jury recommendation—before a death sentence can be imposed.”

A dissenter argued the majority “has taken a giant step backward and removed a significant safeguard for the just application of the death penalty in Florida.”

The new decision was a defeat for Florida death-row inmate Mark Poole, who was seeking a new sentencing hearing because his jury was not unanimous in its death penalty recommendation. One of his lawyers, Julius Chen, told the Associated Press, “We are carefully exploring avenues for further review.”

Currently, Alabama is the only state that doesn’t require a unanimous jury recommendation for a capital sentence.

The composition of the Florida Supreme Court has changed since 2016 because of the state’s mandatory retirement law. Four justices on the seven-member court were forced to step down, and Republican governors named their replacements.

Two of the Republican-appointed justices have been appointed by President Donald Trump to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, leaving the state supreme court with five members.

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