Florida’s capital punishment system is currently facing its greatest uncertainty since the 1970s. In early May, a Florida Supreme Court judge questioned the constitutionality of the state’s new death penalty law. The law went on trial in front of the Florida Supreme Court, as a death row inmate who was sentenced to execution by the state asked for a life sentence. While the constitutionality of the law is in question, the future for 390 death row inmates remains uncertain.
Florida’s death sentencing system was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in January, because it gave too little power to juries in capital cases. The case heard by the federal Supreme Court was that of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of Cynthia Harrison. Though the court did not invalidate Hurst’s death penalty itself, his attorney argued that Hurst should instead be sentenced to life, due to the previous law’s defective nature.
“You can’t separate the punishment from the procedure,” Hurst’s attorney, David Davis, said. “You can’t have one without the other.”
Carine Mitz, Florida Assistant Attorney General, disagreed with Davis. “If the (Hurst) case were to be remanded (back to a trial court), it would have to be under the new statute,” she said. “I still don’t think we have a problem.”
Justice Barbara Pariente, who is often among the court’s five-person majority, sees the biggest problem with the case. Pariente takes issue with the fact that the new law could violate the Eighth Amendment’s restriction against cruel and unusual punishment, because it requires the existence of just one of 16 aggravating factors that make a defendant eligible for a death sentence under Florida law.
“If only one aggravator is needed in this state to put someone to death, we have a serious Eighth Amendment problem,” Justice Pariente said. “If we want a death penalty in Florida, we need it to be constitutional.”
The state does not agree with Pariente’s opinion. “I don’t think that the new statute is as detrimental as some might present,” Mitz said. “I probably should have said it’s actually better.”
Florida Justice Charles Canady, a death penalty supporter who typically finds himself in the court’s minority, notes that the court cited two aggravating factors in the Hurst case, recommending his execution in a 7-5 vote.
Pariente was concerned about the Hurst case long before the US Supreme Court intervened. In 2014, when the court upheld Hurst’s death sentence in a 4-3 decision, justices Jorge Labarga and James Perry joined Pariente in her partial dissent.
In 2014, Pariente wrote, “I dissent from the majority’s affirmance of Hurst’s death sentence because there is no unanimous finding by the jury that any of the applicable aggravators apply.” She continued, “The absence of juror unanimity in the fact-finding necessary to impose the death penalty remains, in my view, an independent violation of Florida’s constitutional right to trial by jury.”
According to Attorney General Pam Bondi, there are currently 43 death sentences that are eligible to be reduced to life in Florida. The Florida Supreme Court’s consequent steps regarding the death penalty system will determine the fate of those 43 inmates. For more information regarding Florida’s death penalty, [Click Here].