Florida Will Give Some, But Not All, Death Row Prisoners A Second Chance At Life

The state's highest court ruled that inmates condemned since 2002 may get new sentencing hearings.

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday continued to make corrections to the state’s death sentencing system, which the U.S. Supreme Court in January struck down as unconstitutional

In the January ruling, the nation’s highest court reaffirmed the principle that juries, not judges, are the ones who should reach the ultimate decision of whether a person should be sentenced to death.

The decision sent ripples through Florida, casting doubt on the legitimacy of hundreds of death row sentences handed out in prior decades ― many of which were imposed by the judge and where juries merely played an advisory role.

Rushing to improve things, the state legislature tried to implement fixes to this judge-centric regime, but the tweaks weren’t enough. The Florida Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty law again in October because it allowed a less-than-unanimous jury to sentence someone to death.

In two follow-up decisions issued Thursday, the state high court said that any death-row inmates who were sentenced by a non-unanimous jury after 2002 may be granted new sentencing hearings ― opening the door for potential life sentences if the jurors again can’t agree on a death sentence.

The Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks developments with capital punishment nationwide, said the new rulings could benefit close to 100 death row prisoners who were sentenced after 2002. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a related death penalty case establishing that the Constitution requires juries to find the factors meriting a death sentence.

But the Florida Supreme Court said that inmates whose death sentences became final prior to 2002 were out of luck and not entitled to new sentencing hearings, even if the jurors in their cases weren’t unanimous.

To one justice, R. Fred Lewis, this created an arbitrary line where the right to a jury trial applied to some but not to others.

“As a result, Florida will treat similarly situated defendants differently — here, the difference between life and death — for potentially the simple reason of one defendant’s docket delay,” Lewis wrote. “Vindication of these constitutional rights cannot be reduced to either fatal or fortuitous accidents of timing.”

To another justice, Barbara Pariente, the U.S. Supreme Court’s January ruling should apply to every inmate on Florida’s death row.

A third justice, the soon-retiring James Perry, said this two-tiered treatment amounts to cruel and unusual punishment ― and used his dissenting opinion to disavow the death penalty entirely.

“The majority’s decision today leads me to declare that I no longer believe that there is a method of which the State can avail itself to impose the death penalty in a constitutional manner,” Perry wrote. His opinion quoted the late Justice Harry Blackmun, who on the eve of his 1994 retirement famously declared that he would “no longer ... tinker with the machinery of death.”

With Thursday’s dual rulings, Florida’s death row population ― the second-largest in the nation ― effectively remains in a state of flux. It may yet again take the U.S. Supreme Court to bring more clarity to those who are on it.