Federal Judge: Florida Death Sentences Are Unconstitutional
June 23, 2011
A federal judge in Miami has ruled that Florida’s process for sentencing convicted murderers to death is unconstitutional because jurors do not have to disclose why they decided to recommend capital punishment.
The decision, in a 1991 murder-for-hire case in Vero Beach, would grant Paul Evans a new sentencing hearing. It’s impact on the state’s death penalty law going forward is unclear, though a spokeswoman for Attorney General Pam Bondi said it would not immediately affect the death sentencing process.
Judge Jose Martinez ruled that Florida’s system violates Ring v. Arizona, a U.S. Supreme Court case requiring any fact that changes a defendant’s sentence to be decided by a jury. In Florida, juries recommend a sentence to the judge, who then weighs aggravating and mitigating factors before ultimately deciding a penalty. The jury voted 9-3 to recommend the death penalty for Evans.
But because the jury was presented with two aggravating factors and isn’t required to report its factual findings, Martinez wrote, it’s possible that five jurors could have recommended the death penalty for one reason and four for another.
“Although the Court concedes that unanimity may not be required, it cannot be that Mr. Evans’s death sentence is constitutional when there is no evidence to suggest that even a simple majority found the existence of any one aggravating circumstance. … The Court’s interpretation of Ring is such that, at the very minimum, the defendant is entitled to a jury’s majority fact finding of the existence of an aggravating factor; not simply a majority of jurors finding the existence of any unspecified combination of aggravating factors upon which the judge may or may not base the death sentence,” Martinez wrote.
Martinez also wrote that the Florida Supreme Court misinterpreted when Evans’ sentence was finalized and so made a mistake in determining whether Ring applied to Evans’ case.
Death-penalty opponents hailed the decision.
“This is yet another sign of the systemic injustices that make up Florida’s death penalty system — which is already plagued by wrongful convictions, racial inequities, the highest rate of exonerations and inadequate legal representation,” American Civil Liberties Union Florida Executive Director Howard Simon said. “As the foundation of Florida’s death penalty system continues to crumble, it becomes harder to justify.”
Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office said she intended to ask for the case to be heard again.
“The Attorney General’s Office believes that the ruling is contrary to relevant decisions by the Florida Supreme Court, Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and the United State Supreme Court as it applies to the imposition of the death penalty in this particular case,” spokesman Jennifer Krell Davis said. “There is no immediate impact on death sentencing in Florida as a result of this ruling as the appeals process is not complete.”
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, said lawmakers would likely consider the impact of the decision during the coming legislative session.
“I am definitely sure that we will be looking at it,” Evers said.
By Brandon Larrabee
The News Service of Florida