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October 23, 2012

Eleventh Circuit decides only SCOTUS can decide Ring invalidates Florida's capital sentencing process

The Eleventh Circuit has a terrifically interesting habeas opinion concerning Florida's death sentencing procedures today in Evans v. Florida DOC, No. 11-14498 (11th Cir. Oct. 23, 2012) (available here). Here is the first paragraph of the opinion and two key paragraphs from the heart of the opinion which summarize the issues and the panel's analysis:

Confident that he knew what the future would bring, one of Shakespeare’s characters boasted that “[t]here are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered.” William Shakespeare, Othello, Act I, Scene 3, lines 412–13.  On the subject of lower courts predicting that the Supreme Court is going to overrule one of its own decisions, however, Judge Hand cautioned against “embrac[ing] the exhilarating opportunity of anticipating a doctrine which may be in the womb of time, but whose birth is distant.”  Spector Motor Serv. v. Walsh, 139 F.2d 809, 823 (2d Cir. 1943) (Hand, J., dissenting).  The Supreme Court has made Hand’s warning a clear command by repeatedly instructing lower courts that when one of its earlier decisions with direct application to a case appears to rest on reasons rejected in a more recent line of decisions, we must follow the directly applicable decision and leave to the high Court the prerogative of overruling its own decisions.  As will become apparent, those instructions are dispositive of the State’s appeal from the grant of habeas corpus relief in this case....

The State appeals the part of the district court’s judgment that granted Evans habeas relief from his death sentence on the theory that application of the jury sentencing provisions of the Florida statute violated his Sixth Amendment rights, as interpreted in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 122 S.Ct. 2428 (2002).  Florida’s procedures comply with the Sixth Amendment and Ring, according to the State, because a judge may sentence a defendant to death only after considering and giving “great weight” to a jury’s advisory sentence.  See, e.g., Ault v. State, 53 So. 3d 175, 200 (Fla. 2010) (“[T]he court must independently consider the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and reach its decision on the appropriate penalty, giving great weight to the jury's advisory sentence.” (citing Tedder v. State, 322 So. 2d 908 (Fla. 1975))).  And a jury cannot advise in favor of death unless it finds beyond a reasonable doubt at least one statutory aggravating circumstance. See, e.g., Ault, 53 So. 3d at 205.  Evans, on the other hand, contends that the district court got it right because under Florida’s sentencing procedure a judge and not the jury actually finds the facts necessary to establish an aggravating circumstance, which makes the defendant death eligible.

Three lines of Supreme Court decisions are relevant to our decision in this case.  The first line of decisions specifically upholds the advisory jury verdict and judicial sentencing component of Florida’s capital punishment statute.  The second line involves the unconstitutionality of Arizona’s former capital sentencing procedures under which a judge, without any input from the jury, found the facts necessary to authorize a death sentence. The third and decisive line of decisions instructs us to follow directly applicable Supreme Court decisions until that Court itself explicitly overrules them.

October 23, 2012 at 06:42 PM | Permalink


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Eleventh Circuit decides only SCOTUS can decide Ring invalidates Florida's capital sentencing process

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