Florida’s highest court is weighing a decision that will likely impact all 390 men and women on the state’s death row. Two men in very different places are hoping to see the same thing happen.
Florida State Prison sits just outside of Raiford—a sleepy, rural town about thirty miles North of Gainesville. It’s where Ronald Clark is held.
“That’s me at 21 years old,” Clark says describing himself in an old picture.
“Long hair, baby face, looked about fifteen,” he says with a chuckle.
He’s 48 now. He wears glasses and his hair is short and straight, parted down the middle. He’s imposing—well over six feet tall and broad shouldered, with a couple of small faded tattoos scattered on his arms. He was convicted of first degree murder in 1991 and sentenced to death.
“25, 26 years later here I sit,” Clark says, “I come through that back gate there on February 22, 1991, and now this Hurst is about all I’ve got to rely on.”
Hurst is the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that came down in January invalidating Florida’s death sentencing scheme. Under that system the jury issued a recommendation, but it was the judge who weighed the evidence and determined the ultimate sentence.
Clark believes there’s no question what should happen now.
“It states right there that all these cases without an—[it] unambiguously requires that all capital felonies whose death sentences have been imposed under the now unconstitutional statute be resentenced to life in prison,” Clark says borrowing from a friend of the court brief.
Former Florida Supreme Court chief Justice Harry Anstead lives on a lake just outside of Tallahassee. Anstead helped write that brief Clark was reading.
“This case, in a sense, is close to my heart,” Anstead says, “because the decision in Hurst is based on an earlier decision in the United States Supreme Court called Ring v. Arizona.”
He explains Ring is very similar to Hurst—the court threw out a basically identical death sentencing scheme in Arizona for the same reasons it struck down Florida’s in Hurst. But when a Florida death row inmate appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court based on Ring the Court chose not to take it up. Anstead says that tied his court’s hands, but he wrote a separate opinion taking issue with the higher court’s decision.
“I was a lone dissent to that decision,” Anstead says, “and wrote essentially what the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in their decision a few months ago that all you have to do is examine the Florida statute and you will see that it does not comply with the ring requirements that juries make those findings.”
That was back in 2002. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled against Florida’s capital sentencing system he believes all 390 death row inmates should have their sentences commuted to life in prison.
And there’s precedent for that.
After a 1970s ruling temporarily halted executions across the country, Florida commuted nearly 100 sentences. But even if wholesale reductions aren’t in the cards, the Hurst ruling will touch off a wave of new appeals.
Clark won’t be holding his breath. Earlier this month he got word the 11th circuit court of appeals has denied his appeal. He hasn’t told his mother yet.
“I mean I found out last week and I did not want to tell her on Mother’s Day.”
“My attorney will file a rehearing—that will get denied,” Clark goes on. “She’ll then file certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court—that will get denied. Yeah, I’m pessimistic, because I already know. I don’t look for the courts to help me any.”
Anstead is a bit more hopeful. But the passage of time between that first opinion and the Hurst ruling weighs on him.
“Since that time in Florida, I don’t know the exact number—maybe you do—but numerous people have been executed, under arguably an unconstitutional statute,” he says.
In the fourteen years since Ring there have been 41 executions. The last one came on January 7 of this year—five days before the Hurst ruling.