TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Continuing to make major changes in the state’s death-penalty system, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday scrapped a longstanding legal requirement of reviewing death sentences to determine if they are “disproportionate” punishment.
Justices, in a 5-1 ruling, said such reviews are not authorized by state law and pointed to “erroneous precedent” by the Supreme Court. But Justice Jorge Labarga wrote a sharply worded dissent that said the majority was rejecting a decades-old review requirement that helps prevent arbitrarily imposed death sentences.
“Today, the majority takes the most consequential step yet in dismantling the reasonable safeguards contained within Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence --- a step that eliminates a fundamental component of this court’s mandatory review in direct appeal cases,” Labarga wrote.
The change came as the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Jonathan Huey Lawrence, who was convicted in the 1998 murder of 18-year-old Jennifer Robinson in Santa Rosa County. Lawrence’s attorneys argued that his death sentence was disproportionate, at least in part because he has mental-health issues.
But the Supreme Court majority said the process of reviewing whether a death sentence is disproportionate when compared to other cases is not included in state law and is not required by the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, the majority agreed with Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office that requiring a proportionality review violates part of the Florida Constitution that conforms with the Eighth Amendment.
“We cannot judicially rewrite our state statutes or Constitution to require a comparative proportionality review that their text does not,” said the majority opinion by Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson, Carlos Muniz and John Couriel. “Nor can we ignore our constitutional obligation to conform our precedent respecting the Florida Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to the (U.S.) Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment precedent by requiring a comparative proportionality review that the (U.S.) Supreme Court has held the Eighth Amendment does not.”
Justice Jamie Grosshans, who joined the court last month, did not take part in the decision.
The majority ruling was one of a series of opinions this year in which the Supreme Court has reversed course on death-penalty and criminal legal precedents. Those opinions came after the Supreme Court underwent a philosophical shift to the right in January 2019 after the retirements of longtime Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, who were part of a liberal bloc. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed replacements who have cemented a conservative majority on the court.
The other opinions included ruling that unanimous jury recommendations are not necessary before death sentences can be imposed; tossing out a decades-old standard about circumstantial evidence in criminal cases; and scrapping a decision that gave some Death Row inmates another chance to argue that they should be shielded from execution because of intellectual disabilities.
Labarga pointed to the earlier opinions as he dissented in Thursday’s case.
“In each of these cases, I dissented, and I lamented the erosion of our death penalty jurisprudence,” wrote Labarga, who often joined Pariente, Lewis and Quince in decisions when they were on the court. “Now today, the majority jettisons a nearly 50-year-old pillar of our mandatory review in direct appeal cases. As a result, no longer is this court required to review death sentences for proportionality. I could not dissent more strongly to this decision, one that severely undermines the reliability of this court’s decisions on direct appeal, and more broadly, Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence.”
Labarga wrote that reversals of death sentences for proportionality reasons are a “rare occurrence” and that a majority of states that have the death penalty use proportionality reviews.
But Thursday’s majority opinion said state law “provides adequate safeguards against the arbitrary and capricious imposition of the death penalty.”
“The reliance interests of death-sentenced defendants on this court’s comparative proportionality review are low to nonexistent, as defendants do not alter their behavior in expectation of such review,” the opinion said. “In contrast, victims and the state have strong interests in this court’s upholding death sentences obtained in compliance with (a section of state law). Moreover, there is no reason to continue to apply erroneous precedent that, though well-intentioned relies on perceived deficiencies in (the section of law) that do not exist.”