Hours after listening to arguments about the impact of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the state’s death-penalty sentencing system, the Florida Supreme Court issued an indefinite stay of execution for Cary Michael Lambrix, who had been scheduled to die Feb. 11.
Tuesday’s unanimous order also denied Lambrix’s request to send the case to a lower court, meaning the Florida Supreme Court is likely to weigh in on the sentencing issue.
Earlier in the day, state justices grilled lawyers for Lambrix and another Death Row inmate about the Jan. 12 ruling in a U.S. Supreme Court case known as Hurst v. Florida. The 8-1 decision found that Florida’s system of allowing judges — and not juries — to decide whether to impose the death penalty violates the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury.
Tuesday’s arguments made clear that the Florida court is grappling with the meaning of the ruling.
“I’ve read it over and over and over. … We have struggled with this,” Justice R. Fred Lewis said.
The Hurst case centered on what are known as “aggravating” circumstances that must be found before defendants can be sentenced to death. A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, requires that determination of such aggravating circumstances be made by juries, not judges.
Under Florida law, juries make recommendations about whether to impose the death penalty, based on a review of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, but judges ultimately decide whether defendants should be put to death or sentenced to life in prison.
Much of Tuesday’s arguments focused on whether the ruling should be applied retroactively to inmates already on Death Row.
Marty McClain, a lawyer representing Lambrix, argued that all 390 Death Row inmates should get the same benefit of jury-imposed sentences as will defendants whose cases have not yet been decided.
“To execute people in Florida on the basis of a statute that has been declared unconstitutional is just wrong,” a lawyer for a death row inmate said.
“To execute people in Florida on the basis of a statute that has been declared unconstitutional is just wrong,” McClain, seeking a stay of execution for Lambrix, told the court.
But lawyers for the state argued that the Hurst decision should only apply to cases in which sentences haven’t yet been imposed. At least three other states did not apply Ring retroactively, Assistant Attorney General Scott Browne said.
“This court would stick out like the proverbial pink elephant if it found Hurst was retroactive,” he said.
The Florida court has repeatedly decided that Ring did not apply retroactively in previous death penalty cases, Browne pointed out.
“We can be wrong,” Lewis said. “You have to be big enough to admit it.”
Sentencing some defendants under a new system would result in “arbitrary application” that could pose constitutional problems for the state, McClain argued.
Lewis seemed to agree.
“Doesn’t there come a point in time where one has to look at this and say, what are we doing putting people to death…(when) one gets death and the other does not?” he asked.
The state contends that the Hurst decision should not apply in Lambrix’s case because the Ring ruling came decades after Lambrix’s conviction of the 1983 murders of Aleisha Bryant and Clarence Moore in Glades County.
According to court documents, Lambrix met the couple at a LaBelle bar and invited the pair to his mobile home for a spaghetti dinner.
Lambrix went outside with Bryant and Moore individually, then returned to finish the dinner with his girlfriend. Bryant’s and Moore’s bodies were found buried near Lambrix’s trailer.
Lambrix was originally scheduled to be executed in 1988, but the Florida Supreme Court issued a stay of that execution. A federal judge lifted the stay in 1992.
Applying Hurst retroactively would be “catastrophic” for the state financially and for victims’ families emotionally, Browne argued.
“We have nearly 400 inmates sentenced to death. It would be an immense burden on judicial resources,” he said. “These are tragic cases. To unsettle the expectations of victims’ family members without any compelling provision is unwarranted.”
In a separate case, a lawyer for Richard Knight — convicted in the 2000 murders of Odessia Stephens and her 4-year-old daughter, Hanessia Mullings — argued Tuesday that the Hurst decision should apply to Knight’s case because he was sentenced under a scheme that was struck down. A jury unanimously recommended the death penalty for each murder.
Knight’s lawyer, Todd Scher, asked the court to vacate Knight’s death sentence, or to put it on hold until the Supreme Court issues a decision in the Lambrix case.
The Hurst ruling is “creating a lot of consternation and chaos” at the trial court level, Scher told the court.
Justice Barbara Pariente said, instead, Knight, convicted in 2007, could “start over” with a new sentencing procedure.
But that would be impossible because Florida is now without a death penalty sentencing law as a result of Hurst, Scher said. Sentencing Knight under a new law could run the risk of “double jeopardy,” he argued.
“There’s no statute. That’s why the people across the street are busy writing things,” Scher said, referring to the Legislature. Lawmakers in both chambers are hurriedly crafting proposals to address the Hurst decision.
Assistant Attorney General Lisa-Marie Lerner argued that Hurst should not be applied retroactively to Knight’s two death sentences. The decision merely struck down Florida’s death penalty sentencing process, not the death penalty itself, she argued.
But the justices seemed unconvinced.
“The actual opinion itself is not as clear as the state … would like it to be,” Pariente said. “That’s what we’re struggling with. The Supreme Court said we got it wrong, whatever it is. … We now have to really look at whether our whole sentencing scheme is infirm.”
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida