Continuing to make major changes in the state’s death-penalty system, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday scrapped a longstanding legal requirement of reviewing death sentences to determine if they are “disproportionate” punishment.
Justices, in a 5-1 ruling, said such reviews are not authorized by state law and pointed to “erroneous precedent” by the Supreme Court. But Justice Jorge Labarga wrote a sharply worded dissent that said the majority was rejecting a decades-old review requirement that helps prevent arbitrarily imposed death sentences.
“Today, the majority takes the most consequential step yet in dismantling the reasonable safeguards contained within Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence — a step that eliminates a fundamental component of this court’s mandatory review in direct appeal cases,” Labarga wrote.
The change came as the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Jonathan Huey Lawrence, who was convicted in the 1998 murder of 18-year-old Jennifer Robinson in Santa Rosa County. Lawrence’s attorneys argued that his death sentence was disproportionate, at least in part because he has mental-health issues.
But the Supreme Court majority said the process of reviewing whether a death sentence is disproportionate when compared to other cases is not included in state law and is not required by the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, the majority agreed with Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office that requiring a proportionality review violates part of the Florida Constitution that conforms with the Eighth Amendment.
“We cannot judicially rewrite our state statutes or Constitution to require a comparative proportionality review that their text does not,” said the majority opinion by Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson, Carlos Muniz and John Couriel. “Nor can we ignore our constitutional obligation to conform our precedent respecting the Florida Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to the (U.S.) Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment precedent by requiring a comparative proportionality review that the (U.S.) Supreme Court has held the Eighth Amendment does not.”
Justice Jamie Grosshans, who joined the court last month, did not take part in the decision.
The majority ruling was one of a series of opinions this year in which the Supreme Court has reversed course on death-penalty and criminal legal precedents. Those opinions came after the Supreme Court underwent a philosophical shift to the right in January 2019 after the retirements of longtime Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, who were part of a liberal bloc. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed replacements who have cemented a conservative majority on the court.
The other opinions included ruling that unanimous jury recommendations are not necessary before death sentences can be imposed; tossing out a decades-old standard about circumstantial evidence in criminal cases; and scrapping a decision that gave some Death Row inmates another chance to argue that they should be shielded from execution because of intellectual disabilities.
Labarga pointed to the earlier opinions as he dissented in Thursday’s case.
“In each of these cases, I dissented, and I lamented the erosion of our death penalty jurisprudence,” wrote Labarga, who often joined Pariente, Lewis and Quince in decisions when they were on the court. “Now today, the majority jettisons a nearly 50-year-old pillar of our mandatory review in direct appeal cases. As a result, no longer is this court required to review death sentences for proportionality. I could not dissent more strongly to this decision, one that severely undermines the reliability of this court’s decisions on direct appeal, and more broadly, Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence.”
Labarga wrote that reversals of death sentences for proportionality reasons are a “rare occurrence” and that a majority of states that have the death penalty use proportionality reviews.
But Thursday’s majority opinion said state law “provides adequate safeguards against the arbitrary and capricious imposition of the death penalty.”
“The reliance interests of death-sentenced defendants on this court’s comparative proportionality review are low to nonexistent, as defendants do not alter their behavior in expectation of such review,” the opinion said. “In contrast, victims and the state have strong interests in this court’s upholding death sentences obtained in compliance with (a section of state law). Moreover, there is no reason to continue to apply erroneous precedent that, though well-intentioned relies on perceived deficiencies in (the section of law) that do not exist.”
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida
Oh well…..don’t commit death penalty offenses and you’ll be okay.
Annie T Walker says
Just because a person is convicted does not mean they committed a crime. There are innocent people in jails and prisons in every state in the USA!!
Frank Torres says
Annie wake up, those cases are extremely rare, most of these guys are bad news and having mental issues has become the ticket to avoid harsh punishments, the states with the toughest laws have the least criminals, I know it because I have attorneys in the family, thugs need to have deterrents. You commit the crime you do the time or pay with your life.
R. S. says
And don’t be anywhere near where someone is doing such a terrible thing or make the mistake of looking even faintly like the culprit or be of the same look-alike group as the culprit or live in a district with unreliable law enforcers or be suffering from PTSD of any kind of psychological handicap or have a sufficient number of people who don’t like you and might wish to frame you or . . . . Wake up, Brian, please?
James M. Mejuto says
I just can’t imagine what more these republican appointed ‘judges’ can do to destroy families who have
loved ones languishing on death row for a crime they were not intellectually aware.
Also, how many thousands of inmates await execution for a crime they never committed?
This folks is what we get when one political party controls everything, every facet of our lives.
Annie T Walker says
I strongly agree with you. It is only people who have no empathy that can take take this stance until it hits home!!
Frank Torres says
Last time I checked it’s the Republican legislature the ones reforming the prison system, Dems talk a good game during election years but NEVER solve one problem, maybe you’ll be happier living in a crime-infested liberal state like CA or OR where you don’t even go to jail after committing a crime, the excuse is COVID 19 and according to the morons running those states Christians going to church are more dangerous than murderers allowed to vote. Get out of here with that partisan BS.
R. S. says
I recommend reading “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014 to learn more about why and how our judicial system treats you better if you’re guilty and wealthy than if you are poor and innocent.
The Florida Supreme Court does not make laws it follows the constitution if you want to change it you have to change the Florida constitution judges are not there for their moral interpretation