TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s Supreme Court wrestled with whether an inmate sentenced to death under a system found to be unconstitutional should have his punishment reduced to life in prison, and the lives of nearly 400 other condemned prisoners may depend on the decision.
David Davis, the attorney for inmate Timothy Lee Hurst, argued for the lesser punishment after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that Florida’s death sentencing system gave too much deference to judges, not juries.
Hurst was convicted of the 1998 murder of his manager at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant. A jury voted 7-5 in the favor of death, and the judge agreed and imposed the sentence.
“I represent Timothy Hurst. As for him, he should get a life sentence. I’m going to leave it to the Supreme Court and other lawyers to sort out how much retroactivity it gets,” Davis said.
The Florida Supreme Court did not immediately rule, and will use the arguments to help decide whether to reduce Hurst’s sentences, and perhaps those of the state’s 389 death row inmates. Two executions have been halted since the Supreme Court’s ruling in January, and attorneys for those inmates have asked the court to impose life sentences for all inmates sentenced to death under the state’s old system.
Florida Assistant Attorney General Carine Mitz argued that Hurst should not receive a life sentence. She said the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling didn’t declare the death penalty unconstitutional, just the sentencing process.
She said if Hurst’s death sentence is tossed out, he should get a new penalty phase.
Hurst’s attorney cited a Florida law that says if the death penalty itself is found to be unconstitutional, all death sentences should be reduced to life in prison. That argument was supported in a brief by three former Florida Supreme Court justices, two former heads of the American Bar Association and others who argued that existing state law requires those now on death row to have their sentences reduced to life in prison.
Mitz disagreed. “I do not think that this statute is applicable,” she said. “And that Hurst or anyone else … should be automatically given a life sentence.”
Since January’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Florida passed a new law that requires at least 10 of the 12 jurors to recommend execution. Under the new law, prosecutors must also explain to jurors why the death penalty is the appropriate punishment before a murder trial begins, and the jury has to decide unanimously if at least one of those “aggravating factors” justifies it.
Nancy Daniels, who is Leon County’s public defender, said she thought that the state has conceded that 50 prior cases were going to need to be remanded for life sentences, but added that she did not know what those cases were and that great uncertainty remains after the Florida Legislature passed new sentencing schemes for the death penalty.
“That’s one of the hardest thing about the whole situation because the new statute says it is prospective only and that leaves a gap on what all the pending cases should be. We thought there might be more discussion on that today,” she said.
Davis added that he agrees with Justice Barbara Pariente that the new statute has some constitutional problems remaining because it does not require jury unanimity. Florida and Alabama remain outliers in that a 10-2 jury decision is required for the death penalty.
“Evolving standards are it should be unanimous. If they approve the current statute then we are going to postpone the inevitable for 10-15 years until the U.S. Supreme Court takes another Hurst case,” Davis said.
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