Friday, December 23, 2016
NYT: Florida Ruling Upends More Than 100 Death Sentences
Well over 100 death sentences in Florida are invalid and must go back to trial courts for resentencing, the State Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, potentially placing a major burden on prosecutors, defense lawyers and the courts.
The court vacated most capital sentences imposed since a 2002 ruling by the United States Supreme Court, but said that its decision did not apply to older sentences. That creates an odd situation: Procedures were considered valid for some death row cases, but not for others. In cases that followed identical procedures for death row inmates, some are considered valid while some are not.
The court said its ruling did not overturn any convictions or set anyone free. In cases in which execution is ruled out, the result would be a life prison sentence.
“The difference is not guilt or innocence but, instead, life or death,” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga wrote for the court majority, in the case of John F. Mosley, a death row inmate.
Until this year, if a jury convicted a defendant in a Florida capital case after the sentencing phase of the trial, the panel voted on recommendations to the judge. But those recommendations were nonbinding, and it was the judge who decided whether there were aggravating factors that could justify capital punishment, whether they outweighed any mitigating factors and whether to impose the death penalty.
In January, the United States Supreme Court ruled that system unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida. The court, relying on its 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona, said the power must rest with the jury to find aggravating factors, and to decide on a punishment.
Two months ago, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that to impose a death sentence, those jury decisions must be unanimous, raising the bar for capital punishment still higher.
On Thursday, the state court ruled that in effect, Florida’s death penalty law was invalid from the time of Ring v. Arizona and, by a 5-to-2 tally, vacated the death penalty of Mr. Mosley, who was sentenced in 2006.
But in another case also decided on Thursday, the court said that pre-Ring death sentences remained valid, and by 5 to 2 upheld the sentence of Mark J. Asay, who was sentenced in 1988. Mr. Asay would be the first white person executed in Florida for killing a black victim since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s.
The state attorney general’s office said it needed time to review the rulings before commenting. The Florida Public Defender Association and the governor’s office did not return calls seeking comment on Thursday.
In cases sent back for resentencing, prosecutors must decide whether to seek the death penalty again, in a new hearing, which can require as much time and preparation as an ordinary trial.
But it is unclear exactly how many sentences were upended. Florida’s Department of Corrections lists 384 people on death row, and 159 of them were sentenced after the Ring decision.
The state’s Supreme Court said that its Mosley ruling did not apply to defendants who waived jury trials and were found guilty by judges. And it said there were a small number of other cases in which it was unclear whether the decision would apply.
Mr. Mosley, now 52, was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Linda Wilkes, and their infant son, Jay-Quan, to avoid paying child support. The jury voted 8 to 4 to recommend execution.
Mr. Asay, also 52, was convicted of killing two men, Robert Lee Booker and Robert McDowell, in separate confrontations on the same night. The jury voted 9 to 3 in favor of a death sentence.