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October 12, 2005

Major Florida ruling on application of Ring

The Florida Supreme Court issued a major opinion today in State v. Steele, No. SC04-802 (Fla. Oct. 12, 2005) (available here) concerning the application of Ring.  Here are selections from the start of the opinion:

In this case, we consider two issues resulting from the United States Supreme Court's decision concerning capital sentencing in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002): whether a trial court may require the state to notify the defendant of the aggravating factors on which it intends to rely, and whether a trial court may require the jury to specify each aggravating factor it finds, and the vote as to each....

Since Ring, this Court has not yet forged a majority view about whether Ring applies in Florida; and if it does, what changes to Florida’s sentencing scheme it requires. That uncertainty has left trial judges groping for answers. This case is an example. The Second District Court of Appeal certified to us two questions of great public importance:

(1) Does a trial court depart from the essential requirements of law, in a death penalty case, by requiring the state to provide pre-guilt or prepenalty phase notice of aggravating factors?

(2) Does a trial court depart from the essential requirements of law, in a death penalty case, by using a penalty phase special verdict form that details the jurors' determination concerning aggravating factors found by the jury? ...

For the reasons that follow, we answer "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second.  We hold that under current law, a trial judge presiding over a case in which the death penalty is possible does not depart from the essential requirements of law by requiring the State to provide pretrial notice of the aggravators it intends to prove in the penalty phase.  We also hold, however, that a judge does depart from the essential requirements of law by requiring a majority of jurors to agree that a particular aggravator applies. Such a requirement imposes a substantive burden on the state not contained in the statute and not required by Ring.

UPDATE:  As detailed in this AP story, one of the most interesting aspects of the Steele decision is a concluding section of the opinion which urges the Florida legislature to revise the state's death penalty statute in light of Ring and other developments.

October 12, 2005 at 04:57 PM | Permalink

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