The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty sentencing system last week, declaring that it violates defendants’ Sixth Amendment Rights to trial by jury.
In response to the Hurst v. Florida decision, a Jacksonville coalition of civic and faith groups — Justice 4 Jacksonville — is calling on State Attorney Angela Corey to stop action on all capital murder cases until Florida’s sentencing statutes are repaired.
Keyontay Humphries, campaign coordinator for Justice 4 Jacksonville, which is affiliated with the ACLU, issued this statement last week:
“Today’s ruling proves what the Justice 4 Jacksonville Coalition has been saying since its creation – that the 4th Judicial Circuit’s outrageously high use of the death penalty is sending people into a system that can’t be trusted.
“Four hundred people currently sit on Florida’s death row because of a death sentencing scheme that has now been declared unconstitutional, and an enormous share of those 400 come from the 4th Judicial Circuit. All of their sentences should be re-evaluated now that the system that sent them to death row has been found unconstitutional.
“It would also be unconscionable for more people to be sentenced under a scheme that has been found to be unconstitutional. For that reason, we are calling on State Attorney Angela Corey to pursue no further action in any capital cases until a more reliable – and constitutional – system has been put in place.”
The Fourth Judicial Circuit, comprising Duval, Nassau and Clay counties, was responsible for handing out one-fourth of all Florida’s death sentences in 2012. In 2010 and 2011, almost half of all new Florida death sentences came from the Fourth Judicial Circuit.
Duval County ranks eighth in the nation in administering death sentences. It’s in a tiny minority of counties nationwide — only 2 percent — that are responsible for doling out more than 56 percent of all the death sentences in the United States.
Through her spokesperson, Corey responded to the call to halt death penalty action:
“The death penalty is still a viable sentence in the state of Florida. We will follow the law, and in appropriate cases State Attorney Corey will still seek the death penalty. This opinion deals with procedural issues which will be addressed by the Florida Supreme Court and the Legislature.”
Hurst v. Florida is expected to open the floodgates of death penalty litigation for up to 80 percent of death row inmates, who were sentenced based on split, majority-only jury findings in the penalty phases of their trials.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing the majority opinion in the 8-1 decision, stated: “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”
Florida law authorizes judges to make the final decision on sentencing in death penalty cases, while requiring them to give “great weight” to the jury recommendation. Using split, majority-vote findings reduces the jury to “adviser” status, which the Court says violates the Sixth Amendment.
While the Court did not mention jury unanimity in its opinion, attorneys say that the manner in which a jury makes findings is through unanimous verdicts, not majority-vote recommendations.
In death penalty cases in Florida, a separate fact-finding analysis, which weighs aggravating and mitigating factors in the case, is conducted after a guilty verdict is reached.
ACLU staff attorney Adam Tebrugge said changing the law to require unanimous penalty-phase verdicts would go a long way toward satisfying Sixth Amendment requirements. He added that those unanimous verdicts should be binding in Florida law, instead of merely advisory, in light of Hurst.
“There’s a strong argument that a 7-5 finding is not sufficient to find any facts,” Tebrugge said, referring to the split jury vote on which the trial judge based his death sentence in Hurst.
“If you don’t require a unanimous jury, it destroys the deliberations process,” he added. “You just vote, and you don’t even have to talk about it.”
Tebrugge believes that caution is in order, despite the Florida Supreme Court’s expedited schedule for death row inmates. “The issues are very complex and the [state] courts don’t have an answer for us. We need to slow things down…. Let’s get it right.”
For a comprehensive history and analysis of the split-jury issue, see Alexandra Zayas’ article from 2013 by clicking here. To learn about a new study regarding racial disparities in Florida’s application of the death penalty, see Mitch Perry’s Florida Politics piece here.
Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.