Florida Supreme Court: Jury must unanimously agree on death penalty

High court strikes down new law requiring 10-2 requirement for death sentence

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Friday that jury recommendations to impose the death penalty must be unanimous, finding unconstitutional a law passed by the Florida Legislature earlier this year allowing the death penalty if the jury recommendation was at least 10-2.

Friday's 5-2 ruling came in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, whose appeal spawned a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January that found Florida's death-penalty sentencing process was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.

The Florida court on Friday ordered that Hurst be given a new sentencing hearing and also left the state's death-penalty sentencing structure in doubt, for the second time in a year.

The immediate impact of Friday's decision on Florida's nearly 400 death row inmates was unclear, but the 89-page ruling left undisputed that unanimous jury recommendations are required for defendants to be ordered to death, in contrast with a hurriedly crafted law passed in March.

The issues in the Hurst case deal with the sentencing process after juries unanimously find defendants guilty of capital offenses

Under Florida's old law, jurors by a simple majority could recommend the death penalty. Judges would then make findings of fact that "sufficient" aggravating factors, not outweighed by mitigating circumstances, existed for the death sentence to be imposed.

That system was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in an 8-1 ruling in January in a case known as Hurst v. Florida.

After the Hurst ruling, the Florida Supreme Court indefinitely halted two scheduled executions, and the Legislature quickly passed a new law to address the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Under the new law, juries have to unanimously find that at least one aggravating circumstance exists in order for defendants to be eligible for the death penalty. The law also requires juries to weigh whether sufficient mitigating factors exist to outweigh the aggravating circumstances, but the law is silent about whether those decisions must be unanimous. The law also required at least 10 jurors to recommend the death penalty, a departure from the old law, which required a simple majority.

The issue of a unanimous recommendations -- not directly addressed in the U.S. Supreme Court decision -- was a flashpoint for lawmakers, prosecutors and defense lawyers during legislative debate on the new law. While the state Senate initially wanted to adopt a requirement of unanimous jury recommendations, lawmakers later struck a deal, pushed by state attorneys, to require at least 10 jurors to recommend death.

But in Friday's highly anticipated decision, the Florida Supreme Court majority found that the state's attempt to repair the death-penalty sentencing structure remained flawed.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince agreed fully in the majority opinion. Justice James E.C. Perry concurred with the issue of requiring unanimous jury recommendations but dissented on another issue. Justices Charles Canady wrote a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justice Ricky Polston.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandated that all findings necessary for imposition of a death sentence are “elements” that must be decided by a jury, and Florida “has a longstanding history of requiring unanimous jury verdicts as the elements of a crime,” the majority wrote.

“… We conclude that under the commandments of Hurst v. Florida, Florida's constitutional right to trial by jury, and our Florida jurisprudence, the penalty phase jury must be unanimous in making the critical findings and recommendation that are necessary before a sentence of death may be considered by the judge or imposed,” the majority wrote.

“Simply put, Florida's extreme outlier status in not requiring unanimity in the jury's final recommendation renders the current imposition of the death penalty in Florida cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in a concurring opinion.

Resolving the issue “now, as opposed to later, ensures that, for as long as death is a permissible punishment in the United States, Florida's death penalty will be constitutionally sound,” Pariente wrote.

But in his dissent, Canady objected that the majority's decision regarding unanimity went far beyond the bounds of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Hurst case, saying it “fundamentally misapprehends and misuses” the decision, “unnecessarily disrupting” the administration of the death penalty in Florida.

Hurst was sentenced to death for the 1998 killing of fast-food worker Cynthia Harrison in Pensacola. Harrison, an assistant manager at a Popeye's Fried Chicken restaurant where Hurst worked, was bound, gagged and stabbed more than 60 times. Her body was found in a freezer.

The jury in the Hurst case recommended a death sentence to the judge, but its vote was split seven to five.

Friday's decision was a “major shift in Florida jurisprudence,” according to 2nd Judicial Circuit Public Defender Nancy Daniels, whose office represents Hurst.

“The Hurst opinion from today makes it clear that the whole job a jury has to do has to be unanimous,” she said in a telephone interview.

State attorneys will hold a telephone conference on Monday to review the court opinion and assess how to proceed, Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association lobbyist Buddy Jacobs said Friday.

Friday's ruling could deepen the rift between the left-leaning court and the Republican-dominated Legislature, which will be forced to address the thorny death-penalty issue again during next year's session.

Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who will take over after the November elections, called the state court's Hurst decision “antithetical to the rule of law” and “dangerous for our state.”

“With no regard to the Legislature's constitutional duty to establish policy in this state, the Florida Supreme Court expanded the scope of its decision to issues that were not raised by the parties or considered by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Corcoran, a Republican lawyer from Land O' Lakes, said.

Florida lawmakers will have to address the issue when they reconvene, said Pete Mills, an assistant public defender in the 10th Judicial Circuit who is chairman of the Florida Public Defender Association's death penalty steering committee.

“We are a nation of laws. We do not make things up as we go along. This was a statute. The statute has been found unconstitutional. To proceed with a statute that is unconstitutional is unwise and will lead to further chaos,” Mills said. “We have been telling the courts and the Legislature that these statutes were unconstitutional for over 15 years. They didn't listen to us. They should listen to us now. They should have listened to us all along.”

A spokesperson for the state attorney's office released the following statement about the ruling: 

“The death penalty is still a viable sentence in the state of Florida. Today’s decision by the Florida Supreme Court will not affect the way we determine whether to seek a death sentence in a case. As always, we will follow the law and in appropriate cases, we will seek the death penalty."

Of 31 states that have the death penalty, Florida is one of just three -- along with Alabama and Delaware -- that have not required unanimous recommendations for sentences of death.

"Now, Florida is not the oddball. It's much more in compliance with the rest of the states. In my opinion, I think it's the end of the death penalty in a meaningful way going forward and that's probably the right decision," attorney Randy Reep said. 

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.