Just hours after declaring prosecutors could not seek death sentences under existing state law, the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday rescinded the order, an uncommon move that casts fresh uncertainty on the state’s death penalty.
The reason: A typo.
In a 5-2 ruling Wednesday morning, the court rejected Attorney General Pam Bondi’s request to let prosecutors seek the death penalty as long as juries voted unanimously. The court threw out the state’s revamped death sentencing law in October because it required only a 10-2 super majority of the jury to put someone to death.
Then at 1 p.m., the Supreme Court rescinded the order, saying it was “prematurely issued,” and deleted it from the court’s website.
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The Wednesday morning ruling was vacated because of a “clerical error,” said Craig Waters, a spokesman for the court.
Instead of writing that death penalty laws in section 921.141 of Florida Statutes were unconstitutional, the court identified section 941.141 — a statute which does not exist.
“It may have simply been a scrivener’s error and they wanted to rescind the order to correct the scrivener’s error,” said Rex Dimmig, the public defender in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties. “It could be that simple; it could be something more complicated.”
Waters did not say if or when the court planned to re-issue the ruling, which provided brief clarity for a death penalty system that was in limbo.
After the court ruled in October that juries had to be unanimous to sentence someone to death, Bondi and prosecutors said capital trials ought to continue but that jurors should be instructed that the rules had changed.
Defense attorneys saw things differently: If the death penalty law was unconstitutional, then no one could be sentenced to death, they argued.
That’s what the justices decided early Wednesday, writing that the whole statute was unconstitutional and “cannot be applied to pending prosecutions.”
How the court will act now is uncertain, but it is likely the Legislature will rewrite the state’s death penalty statutes when they come into session March 7. Next week, the House Judiciary Committee will start deliberating on the issue.
Last month, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, told the Times/Herald that rewriting death penalty laws is a priority.
“We have to act,” said Sprowls, a former prosecutor. “By the time we conclude our business, we have to have a death penalty statute that can be relied upon and that’s legal, so that victims have access to justice.”
Contact Michael Auslen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MichaelAuslen.