The Florida Supreme Court said Thursday that unanimous jury recommendations are not necessary before death sentences can be imposed, as justices backed away from a 2016 decision that revamped the state’s capital-punishment system.
The 4-1 ruling offered a clear picture of how much the Supreme Court has changed since last January, when a conservative majority took control after the retirements of longtime justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince.
Thursday’s majority opinion said the court “got it wrong” in 2016 when it required changes such as unanimous jury recommendations on death sentences. The 2016 ruling came as judges, lawyers and state leaders tried to move forward after the U.S. Supreme Court had found Florida’s death-penalty system unconstitutional.
The Florida Supreme Court said Thursday it erred in 2016 when it ruled a jury must be unanimous in deciding a convicted murderer should be sentenced to death, announcing a dramatic legal reversal that could affect dozens of death row cases.
The opinion pulled back from the court’s 2016 state Supreme Court decision that subsequently led the Legislature to change Florida law to fit the ruling. It remained unclear how the court’s turnabout would effect that existing law.
Since the 2016 ruling, dozens of death row inmates who were sentenced to die on non-unanimous jury decisions have been granted new sentencing hearings.
There was one harsh dissenting opinion to Thursday’s ruling. Justice Jorge Labarga noted Alabama is the only state in the nation that doesn’t require a unanimous jury decision to impose the death penalty.
“The majority returns Florida to its status as an absolute outlier among the jurisdictions in this country that utilize the death penalty,” Labarga wrote. “The majority gives the green light to return to a practice that is not only inconsistent with laws of all but one of the twenty-nine states that retain the death penalty, but inconsistent with the law governing the federal death penalty.”
The composition of the Florida high court has gone from leaning liberal in 2016 to firmly conservative. Three liberal justices on the seven-member court were forced to retire because of age limits on the same day Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis took office. That gave DeSantis the opportunity to appoint three conservative judges. Two of those justices have since been appointed to a federal appeals court and were not part of Thursday’s 4-1 decision.
Confusion over Florida’s death penalty laws began after a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of using a box cutter to kill a coworker at a Pensacola fast-food restaurant in 1998. A judge imposed the a death sentence after a 7-5 jury recommendation.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the sentence was unconstitutional because the judge had too much weight in the decision.
Executions were halted for months while the state sorted out the issue. The Legislature first passed a bill requiring a 10-2 jury recommendation, but the state Supreme Court overturned it. In 2017, the law was changed to require a unanimous jury decision.
As dozens of death penalty cases were returned to trial court for new sentences, some prosecutors opted to simply agree to sentences of life without parole to avoid new sentencing hearings, often to spare families the pain of reliving their tragedies.