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.
- Judge Jose Martinez’s Full Decision
- The Florida Supreme Court Decision (2001)
- Ring v. Arizona (2002)
- Florida Death Row Fact Sheet
- William Gregory Sentenced to Death for 2007 Double-Murder in Flagler Beach
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.