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Justices back away from major death penalty ruling

The ruling is bad news for critics of the death penalty.

The Florida Supreme Court said Thursday that unanimous jury recommendations are not necessary before death sentences can be imposed, as justices backed away from a 2016 decision that revamped the state’s capital-punishment system.

The 4-1 ruling offered a clear picture of how much the Supreme Court has changed since last January, when a conservative majority took control after the retirements of longtime justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince.

Thursday’s majority opinion said the court “got it wrong” in 2016 when it required changes such as unanimous jury recommendations on death sentences. The 2016 ruling came as judges, lawyers and state leaders tried to move forward after the U.S. Supreme Court had found Florida’s death-penalty system unconstitutional.

“Last, lest there be any doubt, we hold that our state Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment …  does not require a unanimous jury recommendation — or any jury recommendation — before a death sentence can be imposed,” said Thursday’s majority opinion shared by Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson and Carlos Muniz. “The text of our Constitution requires us to construe the state cruel and unusual punishment provision in conformity with decisions of the (U.S.) Supreme Court interpreting the (U.S. Constitution’s) Eighth Amendment. Binding Supreme Court precedent … holds that the Eighth Amendment does not require a jury’s favorable recommendation before a death penalty can be imposed.”

But Justice Jorge Labarga wrote a highly critical dissent, arguing that the majority “has taken a giant step backward and removed a significant safeguard for the just application of the death penalty in Florida.”

“Today, a majority of this court recedes from the requirement that Florida juries unanimously recommend that a defendant be sentenced to death,” Labarga wrote. “In doing so, the majority returns Florida to its status as an absolute outlier among the jurisdictions in this country that utilize the death penalty. The majority gives the green light to return to a practice that is not only inconsistent with laws of all but one of the 29 states that retain the death penalty, but inconsistent with the law governing the federal death penalty.”

The ruling came in a Polk County case in which Mark Anthony Poole was convicted in the 2001 first-degree murder of Noah Scott, the attempted murder and sexual battery of Loretta White, armed burglary and armed robbery. After years of litigation, a jury in 2011 recommended by a vote of 11-1 that Poole should be sentenced to death — a sentence that a judge imposed.

But based on the Florida Supreme Court’s 2016 decision, Poole’s death sentence was later vacated because of the lack of a unanimous jury recommendation, Thursday’s opinion said. That spurred the state to appeal. The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered that Poole’s death sentence be reinstated.

The opinion came after a long, complicated series of issues that stemmed from a January 2016 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case dubbed Hurst v. Florida. That ruling found the state’s death-penalty system was unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries, in imposing death sentences.

The Florida Supreme Court in October 2016, in the similarly named case of Hurst v. State, interpreted and applied the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In addition to requiring unanimous jury recommendations, it also dealt with a critical issue of jurors finding what are known as “aggravating factors” that can justify death sentences.

The Florida court said that before judges could impose death sentences, juries would have to unanimously find that aggravating factors were proven beyond a reasonable doubt; unanimously find that aggravating factors are sufficient to impose death; unanimously find that aggravating factors outweigh “mitigating” factors; and unanimously recommend death sentences.

But in Thursday’s opinion, the majority said that interpretation went too far. It said juries are required to unanimously find the existence of one or more aggravating factors, but it backed away from the other legal conclusions reached in October 2016.

“Without legal justification, this court used Hurst v. Florida — a narrow and predictable (U.S. Supreme Court) ruling that should have had limited practical effect on the administration of the death penalty in our state as an occasion to disregard decades of settled (U.S.) Supreme Court and Florida precedent,” the majority opinion said. “Under these circumstances, it would be unreasonable for us not to recede from Hurst v. State’s erroneous holdings.”

In 2017, the Legislature passed a law that required unanimous jury recommendations as it complied with the state Supreme Court ruling — a move that Thursday’s opinion acknowledged.

“Our decision today is not a comment on the merits of those changes or on whether they should be retained,” the opinion said. “We simply have restored discretion that Hurst v. State wrongly took from the political branches.”

But in his dissent, Labarga wrote that there is “every reason to maintain reasonable safeguards for ensuring that the death penalty is fairly administered.”

“I strongly object to the characterization of this court’s decision in Hurst v. State as one where this court ‘wrongly took (discretion) from the political branches.’ As the court of last resort in Florida’s third and co-equal branch of government — whose responsibility it is to interpret the law — that is what this court did in Hurst v. State. The constitutionality of a provision of Florida’s death penalty law is uniquely this court’s to interpret,” Labarga wrote.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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