Future Far From Settled On Florida's Death Row

Dec 8, 2016

Credit Nick Evans

Questions about Florida’s death penalty continue to swirl as the court considers four more cases.  The full impact of the Hurst v. Florida decision is far from settled.

It’s been nearly a year since the U.S. Supreme Court nixed Florida’s death sentencing scheme in a case called Hurst v. Florida.  Now the state Supreme Court is going through appeals with an eye on that ruling and it’s own later decision requiring unanimous juries.  This week the court heard four of those cases, with Hurst hanging over each one.

“May as well address the Hurst issue first,” Nada Carey began Thursday before the bench.

She’s a public defender representing a man named Randall Deviney.  The state Supreme Court’s Hurst decision means all twelve jurors must agree in new capital cases and for inmates on their first round of appeals.  That’s where Deviney’s case is.

“Mr. Deviney is entitled to a new sentencing proceeding,” Carey argues, “given the eight-four jury recommendation and the extensive and compelling mitigation in this case.”

But the state Supreme Court hasn’t said what its ruling means for some of the oldest cases on death row—it’s unclear if the same unanimity requirements will apply.  David Hendry represents an inmate named John Hampton in a secondary round of appeals.  Hendry points to Florida’s blanket prohibitions on executing juveniles or the mentally ill.

“So our argument is basically that it would likewise be improper for the state to execute someone who we know went through an unconstitutional trial,” Hendry explains.

To complicate matters further, Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi is preparing to appeal the court’s decision in hopes of limiting how many inmates get new appeals.

“We’re waiting on clarification—I don’t want to comment on that yet,” Bondi said Tuesday morning.  “The opinion was—not vague, it was a bit—it left many questions with us.”

Her office will file its appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, and in the meantime the attorney general has asked a trial court to delay a new penalty hearing.  But court watchers on both sides of the issue are skeptical the Supreme Court will wade into a dispute over the state constitution.