With one week left before the Florida Supreme Court goes on its summer recess, the justices have yet to rule on one of the most anticipated and politically charged questions facing them this year: Whether to commute the sentences of 390 death row inmates after the state’s death penalty laws were struck down and rewritten this spring.
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case called Hurst vs. Florida that the process used to sentence people to death in the state was unconstitutional.
Without a valid death penalty law on the books, the Florida Legislature passed new laws for death sentences that will leave the decision to the jury, which has to find one aggravating circumstance and agree to the death penalty on a 10-2 vote.
What remains unclear is how the Hurst decision will impact those who have already been sentenced to death.
Defense attorneys for death-row inmates have argued their clients’ sentences should be commuted to life in prison. But the state has stood by the original death sentences.
“If the (Hurst) case were to be remanded (back to a trial court), it would have to be under the new statute,” Assistant Attorney General Carine Mitz said in the Supreme Court in May. “I still don't think we have a problem.”
The seven justices don’t have to make up their minds before the summer recess — and given the complexity and controversy of the issue, they may not. But until they do, there’s deep uncertainty on the issue, not just for those convicted and sentenced to death but also within the political and legal worlds.
Gov. Rick Scott has not signed a death warrant since the Florida Supreme Court halted the executions ofMichael Lambrix and Mark Asay in February and March.
Some death row lawyers and Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente have questioned whether the new law is constitutional because, they say, the requirement that the jury find just one aggravating factor could increase the number of convicted murderers eligible for the death penalty.
On Thursday, the court issued one death-row opinion that briefly addressed Hurst. Charles Brant, who pled guilty to the 2004 murder of 21-year-old Sara Radfar in Tampa.
Because Brant waived his right to a jury in the penalty phase of his murder trial, the justices wrote thatHurst cannot be applied to his case. They issued a similar decision in a death penalty case case earlier this month, writing that a death-row inmate “cannot subvert the right to jury factfinding by waiving that right and then suggesting that a subsequent development in the law has fundamentally undermined his sentence.”
The final opinions before the court goes on recess are expected at 11 a.m. July 7.