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Supremes Stay Lambrix Execution While Legislature Tweaks Death Penalty

Nick Evans

Florida’s 389 death row inmates are in limbo after the US Supreme Court invalidated the state’s capital sentencing system.  The top court in Florida has to decide if the ruling applies retroactively.

Cary Michael Lambrix was sentenced to die February 11—Tuesday afternoon the Florida Supreme Court stayed his execution.  His lawyer Marty McClain says executions need to wait until the ruling in Hurst v. State of Florida plays out.  In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Florida’s death sentencing system violates the Sixth Amendment.  That’s because juries only recommend the death penalty and then a judge decides whether to impose the sentence. 

McClain argues that ruling needs to apply retroactively.

“If this court doesn’t apply it retroactively it’s going to create an Eighth Amendment issue in terms of the arbitrary manner in which people get the benefit of Hurst,” McClain says.

He says death row inmates who haven’t exhausted their chances for appeal will benefit from Hurst—but others won’t.

When the Supreme Court renders a decision that results in a new rule of constitutional law, that finding is supposed to apply retroactively.  But another case—Ring v. Arizona—doesn’t because the ruling was simply a matter of procedure.  That’s the argument Scott Brown from the Attorney General’s office opened with but he didn’t get far.

“Hurst announced a new procedural rule,” Brown began, “holding Ring applicable to Florida, but it was a very narrow procedural ruling,”

“You know, here’s the problem that we’re going to have,” Justice Barbara Pariente cut him off. 

“Mr. McClain wants to reduce every sentence to life, the state wants to say this is the narrowest ruling ever,” she went on.  “I think we have to come up with something that is actually what Hurst holds and what the Florida statute is.  So if the state is really going to go the other extreme we’re not going to have a very helpful oral argument.”

To support his argument, Brown read from the earlier ruling against retroactivity in Ring. It’s a ruling penned by Justice Fred Lewis—one of the judges sitting on the bench.  But Lewis interrupted him.

“We can be wrong.”

While the Supreme Court considers what to do with existing death row inmates, the Legislature is working on changes for the capital sentencing system moving forward.  House lawmakers are pushing a plan requiring nine of twelve jurors recommend a death sentence.  But Rep. Randolph Bracy (D-Ocoee) says the death penalty is applied unevenly, and requiring unanimity throughout the process might reduce racial disparities.

“No white person has ever been sentenced to death for killing a black victim in the state of Florida,” Bracy says.  “There is great variation in how the death penalty is being applied, so one way to reduce the bias is to require unanimous juries when recommending the death penalty.”

But Rep. Ross Spano (R-Brandon) defends the proposal.  He says juries have to unanimously find defendants guilty and then unanimously agree on an aggravating factor. 

“And then once you get past that, you have to have nine of the twelve jurors indicate that there is no mitigating circumstance that outweighs those—that aggravating factor,” Spano says.  “And then beyond that, the judge can still depart downward.”

The measure passed and now heads for the House floor.  But court watchers warn there’s a trend toward unanimity in capital sentencing and Florida could find its new proposal back before the Supreme Court soon.