Florida Supreme Court Could Commute Every Single Death Sentence in the State

Ol' Sparky still remains the state's auxiliary means of execution.
Ol' Sparky still remains the state's auxiliary means of execution.
Courtesy of Florida Department of Corrections

There are currently 389 inmates in Florida prisons awaiting the death penalty, the second-highest number of any state in the union. 

If the Florida Supreme Court agrees with a cadre of lawyers working on their behalf, every single one of them may see their death sentence whipped out replaced with life in prison without parole. 

It's the latest domino to fall after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that Florida's death penalty sentencing system was unconstitutional. Most states require a unanimous decision of a jury to impose the death penalty. Not Florida. It merely required a simple majority. 

In fact, the final decision on the ultimate punishment was, by law, not even the jury's to make. Legally, judges only had to consider a jury's decision as a suggestion. It was rare for a judge to totally ignore the jury's input, but the Supreme Court's decision stems from an incident in which a judge handed down a death penalty even though only 7 out of 12 members of the jury recommended it. 

Of course, that ruling means Florida now has to decide what to do with the nearly 400 individuals left on Death Row who were sentenced under the old guidelines. 

"Commute the sentences," says the group of lawyers. The group includes three former state Supreme Court justices and two former presidents of the American Bar Association, among other high profile legal minds. They've filed an amicus brief pointing to an obscure 1972 Florida law. 

That long-forgotten law was passed by the legislature at the time in anticipation of a day when the Supreme Court could strike down all death penalty laws nationwide. The Florida law automatically commutes death row sentences to life sentences in the case of such a major Supreme Court decision. 

But attorneys representing Florida argue that each the U.S. Supreme Court's decision should not be retroactively applied to every inmate on death row, and instead should be considered on a case-by-case basis. 

The Florida Supremes will continue to hear arguments about how the federal court's decision should be applied. 

State lawmakers, however, have already put a new system in place. Now 10 of 12 members of a jury must recommend the death penalty. That's still not exactly in line with the rest of the nation — in the vast majority of other states, all 12 jury members must agree unanimously. 


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