Florida Supreme Court Vacates Over 100 Death SentencesDecember 29, 2016

The Florida Supreme Court last Thursday issued a decision invalidating over 100 death sentences in the state.  The court held that the United States Supreme Court’s January 2016 ruling in Hurst v. Florida applied retroactively to the sentences of a large portion of those on the state’s death row.  In Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because it did not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty.  Relying on its 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona, the Court held that Florida’s scheme violated the Sixth Amendment’s requirement that a jury, not a judge, find each fact necessary to impose a death sentence.

In Mosley v. State, decided December 22, the Florida Supreme Court held that Hurst applies retroactively to death sentences imposed after Ring.  This effectively struck down most death sentences imposed in Florida after the 2002 decision, entitling those defendants to new sentencing hearings.  State prosecutors will have to decide whether they believe it is worth trying to obtain new death sentences in those cases at taxpayer expense.  

Florida far outpaces Alabama in its attempts to comply with the constitution.  In response to Hurst, Florida’s legislature rewrote the state’s death penalty statute.  While it removed the judge’s ability to override a jury’s sentencing recommendation, it still did not require a unanimous jury verdict in order to impose a death sentence.  In October, the Florida Supreme Court found this new law unconstitutional under Hurst because of the lack of a unanimity requirement.  And earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Delaware, which was the only other state besides Alabama and Florida that allowed judge override, held that Hurst was completely retroactive, overturning all death sentences in the state.

Alabama has the same death penalty statute as that struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hurst.  Since Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court has remanded four Alabama death penalty cases to Alabama courts for reconsideration. Despite this, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in September that the state’s death penalty statute is constitutional.  Alabama resistance to upholding the constitution makes it now the only state in which a judge can override a jury’s life verdict and impose a death sentence.  Less than three weeks ago, Alabama executed a man whose jury had voted to sentence him to life without the possibility of parole.