In January the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Florida’s death sentencing system. Now Florida’s high court is considering how the ruling applies to inmates waiting on death row. Their decision could change the sentences of nearly four hundred men and women.
It would be difficult to put the case more succinctly than attorney Seth Waxman did before the U.S. Supreme Court last October.
“Under Florida law,” he opened, “Timothy Hurst will go to his death despite the fact that a judge not a jury made the factual finding that rendered him eligible for death.”
Three months later the Court threw out Florida’s sentencing system and sent the case back to the state Supreme Court. Ahead of Thursday’s oral arguments a group of notable attorneys including former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Anstead filed a brief describing what they believe should happen next. Anstead says there’s already a statute in place directing the court what to do.
“And that is that if the United States Supreme Court declares the Florida death penalty scheme unconstitutional that each of those on death row shall be brought back before the sentencing judge and sentenced to life imprisonment,” Anstead explains.
If the court agrees with Anstead, it could have a major impact. There are almost 400 other men and women on death row, and many are preparing appeals in the wake of the Hurst ruling.
But in court Thursday Hurst’s lawyer Dave Davis explains he’s only arguing for his client.
“Well I don’t want to presume to speak for all the 390 people on death row. I’m simply here on Timothy Hurst,” Davis tells the bench. “As to Timothy Hurst §775.082 both (1) and (2) will dictate require this court to remand for a life sentence.”
That said, there is precedent for wholesale commutations. In the early 1970s the U.S. Supreme Court briefly halted executions through a case called Furman v. Georgia. Just ahead of that ruling the Florida Legislature passed a law automatically reducing death sentences to life in prison in the event the death penalty was found unconstitutional. Nearly a hundred death row inmates had their sentences reduced.
But Assistant Attorney General Carine Mitz disagrees with Davis and Anstead’s reading of the statute.
“The plain language is evident in the statute, ‘in the event the death penalty.’ It doesn’t say the death penalty statute. It doesn’t say Florida’s death penalty statute,” Mitz says.
“It specifically says the death penalty.”
She says an automatic reduction only applies if the death penalty writ large is found unconstitutional. Instead Mitz advocates for a harmless error ruling. That is, Hurst may have been convicted under a flawed system, but she wants the Court to agree those shortcomings didn’t change the ultimate outcome.
Failing that, she argues Hurst should return to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing under guidelines signed into law earlier this year. But Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente has some misgivings about the new scheme.
“If only one aggravator is—in this state—is all that’s needed to put someone to death, we have a serious Eighth Amendment problem,” Pariente says.
She worries the burden is too light and it could run afoul of Supreme Court doctrine that death penalty statutes narrow the set of capital offenses eligible for the death penalty. Speaking on the court steps after the hearing, Hurst’s lawyer Davis says she’s right to worry.
“I think Justice Pariente had it right again,” Davis says. “If they approve the current statute and she saw significant constitutional errors in it, then we’re going to just postpone the inevitable for ten, fifteen years again until the Supreme Court takes another Hurst case ten years from now.”