Florida court reverses itself, rules death sentences don’t have to be unanimous
By Jim Saunders
News Service of Florida|
Jan 23, 2020 | 6:10 PM
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court backed away from a 2016 decision that revamped the state’s capital-punishment system, ruling Thursday that unanimous jury recommendations are not necessary before death sentences can be imposed.
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.
“Last, lest there be any doubt, we hold that our state Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment … does not require a unanimous jury recommendation — or any jury recommendation — before a death sentence can be imposed,” said Thursday’s majority opinion shared by Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson and Carlos Muniz.
But Justice Jorge Labarga wrote a highly critical dissent, arguing that the majority “has taken a giant step backward and removed a significant safeguard for the just application of the death penalty in Florida.”
“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 29 states that retain the death penalty, but inconsistent with the law governing the federal death penalty.”
The ruling came in a Polk County case in which Mark Anthony Poole was convicted in the 2001 first-degree murder of Noah Scott, the attempted murder and sexual battery of Loretta White, armed burglary and armed robbery. After years of litigation, a jury in 2011 recommended by a vote of 11-1 that Poole should be sentenced to death — a sentence that a judge imposed.
But based on the Florida Supreme Court’s 2016 decision, Poole’s death sentence was later vacated because of the lack of a unanimous jury recommendation, Thursday’s opinion said. That spurred the state to appeal. The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered that Poole’s death sentence be reinstated.
The opinion came after a long, complicated series of issues that stemmed from a January 2016 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case dubbed Hurst v. Florida. That ruling found the state’s death-penalty system was unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries, in imposing death sentences.
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The majority wrote that Hurst v. Florida was “a narrow and predictable ruling” and should not have been used as “an occasion to disregard decades of settled (U.S.) Supreme Court and Florida precedent.”
In 2017, the Legislature passed a law that required unanimous jury recommendations as it complied with the state Supreme Court ruling, a move that Thursday’s opinion acknowledged.
“Our decision today is not a comment on the merits of those changes or on whether they should be retained,” the opinion said. “We simply have restored discretion that Hurst v. State wrongly took from the political branches.”
But in his dissent, Labarga wrote that there is “every reason to maintain reasonable safeguards for ensuring that the death penalty is fairly administered.”