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Florida’s Death Penalty Ruled Unconstitutional

| June 22, 2011

State-sponsored executions get a stay. (Truthout.org)

A federal judge in Miami ruled today that Florida’s process for sentencing convicted murderers to death is unconstitutional because jurors neither disclose nor have to agree on aggravating factors that lead to a recommendation for capital punishment.

Florida is the only state where a jury doesn’t need either a supermajority or to be unanimous in agreeing to the aggravating factors for capital punishment. Only six of 12 jurors are needed to recommend death.

The decision, in a 1991 murder-for-hire case in Vero Beach, would grant Paul Evans a new sentencing hearing. Its impact on the state’s death penalty law is unclear, though a spokeswoman for Attorney General Pam Bondi said it would not immediately affect the death sentencing process. Bondi will likely appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal in Atlanta. The case may end up at the U.S. Supreme Court, though the Florida Legislature is more likely to rewrite the law before then.

Judge Jose Martinez ruled that Florida’s system violates Ring v. Arizona, a U.S. Supreme Court case requiring any fact that worsens a defendant’s sentence to be decided by a jury. In Florida, juries recommend a sentence to the judge, who then weighs aggravating and mitigating factors before ultimately deciding a penalty. The jury voted 9-3 to recommend the death penalty for Evans.

But because the jury was presented with two aggravating factors and isn’t required to report its factual findings, Martinez wrote, it’s possible that five jurors could have recommended the death penalty for one reason and four for another.

“Although the Court concedes that unanimity may not be required, it cannot be that Mr. Evans’s death sentence is constitutional when there is no evidence to suggest that even a simple majority found the existence of any one aggravating circumstance. … The Court’s interpretation of Ring is such that, at the very minimum, the defendant is entitled to a jury’s majority fact finding of the existence of an aggravating factor; not simply a majority of jurors finding the existence of any unspecified combination of aggravating factors upon which the judge may or may not base the death sentence,” Martinez wrote.

“In other words,” Public Defender, a blogger, writes, “any aggravating factor that exposes the defendant to the sentence of death must be found by a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt. A judge cannot find an aggravating factor that then increases the defendant’s punishment to death.” Yet Florida’s sentencing statute enables just such a finding.

That statute, Martinez wrote, “leaves open the very real possibility that in substance the judge still makes the factual finding necessary for the imposition of the death penalty as opposed to the jury as required by Ring.”

Martinez, who was nominated to the federal bench by George W. Bush and confirmed in 2002, just weeks after Ring was decided, also wrote that the Florida Supreme Court misinterpreted when Evans’ sentence was finalized and so made a mistake in determining whether Ring applied to Evans’ case.

Death-penalty opponents hailed the decision.


“This is yet another sign of the systemic injustices that make up Florida’s death penalty system — which is already plagued by wrongful convictions, racial inequities, the highest rate of exonerations and inadequate legal representation,” American Civil Liberties Union Florida Executive Director Howard Simon said. “As the foundation of Florida’s death penalty system continues to crumble, it becomes harder to justify. It is past time to end state-sponsored executions and replace the unfair, unjust, and unconstitutional death penalty system with mandatory life in prison.”

Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office said she intended to ask for the case to be heard again.

“The Attorney General’s Office believes that the ruling is contrary to relevant decisions by the Florida Supreme Court, Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and the United State Supreme Court as it applies to the imposition of the death penalty in this particular case,” spokesman Jennifer Krell Davis said. “There is no immediate impact on death sentencing in Florida as a result of this ruling as the appeals process is not complete.”

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, said lawmakers would likely consider the impact of the decision during the coming legislative session.

“I am definitely sure that we will be looking at it,” Evers said.

There are 399 people on Florida’s death row, including four from Flagler: Louis Gaskin, who shot and killed four Palm Coast residents in 1989, David Snelgrove, convicted in 2002 of murdering two people, Cornelius Baker, convicted in 2009, and William Gregory, convicted last April for the double murder in Flagler Beach, in 2007, of his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend while they slept.

But the U.S. Supreme Court did not make Ring v. Arizona retroactive, so Wednesday’s ruling, if upheld, would not apply to cases decided prior to 2002.

–FlaglerLive and Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida.

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4 Responses for “Florida’s Death Penalty Ruled Unconstitutional”

  1. Justice says:

    Another liberal judge that needs to step down from the bench. Lets feed and house these animals for a 100 years. No better yet, lets release them back out into society because our prisons are overcrowded…..
    I’m done with this judicial systems money making scams. They seemed to be the only ones working full time in this state. Is it possible there job security would be a problem if we actually executed prisoners on Death Row.

  2. JL says:

    Clearly Howard Simons must have stock in companies that build prisons. Oh wait, that’s right, no one builds prisons anymore. They just reduce sentences of convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles to make room for the newest crop. And to say death row is full of racial inequities? Come on. It is sad, BUT TRUE, that most crimes are performed by minorities. Let’s be honest. Nothing racist here. Just the cold, hard facts. But it is also true that mostly white men commit serial murders. Again, not being racist. To do away with the death penalty just overburdens the prison system. Why should society be responsible for paying for criminals for the rest of their lives. To live with t.v., libraries, air conditioning, food, medical. That isn’t free. I hope this Judge’s opinion is overturned in higher court.

    If they are found guilty of murder, it shouldn’t matter. Put them to death. White, black, blue or green. Race doesn’t matter. An eye for an eye. Too bad we can’t do the same for rapists and pedophiles. Crimes that have the highest rate of recidivism. I’m tired of bleeding hearts saying “give them life”. Why? The same wasn’t given to their victims. I do not want my tax money going to keep them breathing any longer than necessary. They are murderers!!

  3. Dorothea says:

    Justice and JL, did you read the article? The decision was based on a prior Supreme Court decision. Florida is the only state in the US that is sentencing people to death in violation of this Supreme Court decision.

    As for your generalization that most crimes are committed by minorities, do you have some hard data on that? As for your worries about overcrowded jails, if we decriminalized marijuana and stopped sending drug users to jail for extended periods of time, we would have plenty of room for all the rapists, pedophiles, and murderers, By the way, it is cheaper to send someone away for life without parole, because it negates much of the appeals process, then it is for the state to kill them. It also means that we can release all the convicted murderers who are later found innocent.

  4. Val Jaffee says:

    “And to say death row is full of racial inequities? Come on. It is sad, BUT TRUE, that most crimes are performed by minorities. Let’s be honest. Nothing racist here. Just the cold, hard facts” – that America convicts more minorities for the same crimes committed by their white counterparts who get community service as their punishment if they can’t afford a lawyer who will get them off.

    “Too bad we can’t do the same for rapists and pedophiles” – those are mostly white crimes which should explain why.

    Now, I hold a lot of strong liberal views, but a cold blooded and ruthless murderer should be required to save a life for those he/she took – in other words, rather than just being executed, his/her organs should be donated to save lives. Believe me, if any of my kids need an organ to survive, I would not be picky about who it came from and I’m sure most people would feel the same way when it becomes a do or die situation. This may seem unethical to some folks but is it really? Convince me

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