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July 2, 2017

Reviewing what Hurst has come to mean for the death penalty in Florida

This new Miami Herald article, headlined "There are fewer murderers on Florida’s Death Row but not because of executions," reports on the enduring echo effects of the Supreme Court's most significant capital punishment ruling in recent years. Here is how the article gets started:

The full impact of a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Florida’s death penalty system is finally emerging as the state’s Death Row population is smaller than it was more than a decade ago and will keep shrinking for a long time.

Florida has not executed an inmate in 18 months. No inmates haves been sent to Death Row in more than a year, a sign that prosecutors are not trying as many first-degree murder cases because of uncertainties in the sentencing system.

“There is no reason to sign a death warrant if you know it’s going to get delayed,” said State Attorney Bernie McCabe, the top prosecutor in Pinellas and Pasco counties. “I think judges are reluctant to if they don’t know what the rules are.”

Florida’s Death Row population now stands at 362, according to the Department of Corrections web site. That’s the lowest number since 2004; only a year ago, the population was 389.

Many more cells on Death Row are certain to be emptied as the Florida Supreme Court continues to vacate death sentences because they violate a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Hurst v. Florida.  The case struck down the state’s death penalty sentencing system because it limited jurors to an advisory role, a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury.

In four new cases, the state’s high court upheld first-degree murder convictions Thursday but ordered that all four defendants must be resentenced because of the Hurst decision, a step that could spare any or all of them a trip to the execution chamber.

One of the four, John Sexton, was convicted of the brutal 2010 Pasco County slaying of Ann Parlato, a 94-year-old woman who lived alone. The jury that convicted Sexton recommend his execution by a vote of 10 to 2, a split decision that justices said Thursday is a violation of the Hurst decision.  Justices also lifted the death sentence of Tiffany Ann Cole, convicted of burying a couple alive in Jacksonville.  She’s one of three women on Death Row.

Legal experts say that in all, up to 150 death sentences could be reversed or be sent back to trial courts for resentencing hearings in other cases in which the jury’s recommendation of a death sentence was not unanimous. Those penalty phase hearings will strain the limited resources of prosecutors and public defenders, who must scramble to find old trial transcripts and witnesses and must empanel new juries.  “I’ll use one word: ‘chaos,’ ” said retired Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan of Miami. “It’s just a mess.”

Scott Sundby, a law professor at the University of Miami, said the impact on the criminal justice system will be significant.  “It essentially means that every new penalty phase is going to have to be re-investigated and presented in full,” Sundby said.  “There will not be an ability to simply rely on the prior penalty phase.”

July 2, 2017 at 11:31 PM | Permalink

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