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Justices Weigh Major Florida Death Penalty Case

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Wikimedia Commons
The Florida Channel
The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments in a key case that led to an overhaul of the state's death-penalty sentencing system and could have sweeping implications for the 390 inmates awaiting execution in Florida.

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments in a key case that led to an overhaul of the state's death-penalty sentencing system and could have sweeping implications for the 390 inmates awaiting execution in Florida.

The case involves Timothy Lee Hurst, who was sentenced to death for the 1998 killing of a fast-food worker in Pensacola.

Hurst was the plaintiff in an appeal that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that Florida's system of allowing judges --- and not juries --- to decide whether defendants should face death equates to an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury.

Lawmakers hurriedly overhauled the death-penalty sentencing system this winter to address the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Since the January ruling, the Florida Supreme Court has been grappling with the impact of the decision on Death Row inmates like Hurst. Lawyers for the prisoners contend that Florida law requires the death sentences be reduced to life in prison without parole. Prosecutors argue that the court should consider the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a case-by-case basis.

David Davis, a Leon County assistant public defender representing Hurst, argued Thursday that the new law overhauling the sentencing system should not apply to Hurst and that his client must be resentenced to life behind bars.

Echoing arguments made by a group of legal luminaries in a brief filed in Hurst's case this week, Davis relied on a 1972 statute which provides that "in the event the death penalty in a capital felony is held to be unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court," the court having jurisdiction over a person previously sentenced to death "shall sentence such person to life imprisonment."

That law came in anticipation of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Furman v. Georgia, which resulted in a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty and led to the commutation of all death sentences in Florida to life in prison without parole.

Justice Peggy Quince noted that the decades-old law deals only with decisions regarding the death penalty itself, not the process involving sentencing.

"The Supreme Court (in the Hurst ruling) did not say that the death penalty was unconstitutional. It said the Florida procedure was unconstitutional. Isn't that a difference?" she asked Davis.

But Davis said the law links the procedure and the penalty.

"It's sort of like a symbiotic relationship. You can't have one without the other. It's sort of like having a bag full of bullets without a gun. They don't do you any good unless you have the gun. In this case, unless you have this procedure, you don't have the death penalty," he said.

The 8-1 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Hurst case dealt with the sentencing phase of death-penalty cases after defendants are found guilty, and it focused on what are known as aggravating circumstances that must be determined before defendants can be sentenced to death. A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, requires that determinations of such aggravating circumstances must be made by juries, not judges.

Under Florida's new law, juries will have to unanimously determine "the existence of at least one aggravating factor" before defendants can be eligible for death sentences. The law also requires at least 10 jurors to recommend the death penalty in order for the sentence to be imposed, and it did away with a feature of the old law that had allowed judges to override juries' recommendations of life in prison instead of death.

Justice Barbara Pariente, who earlier this year called reliance on the 1972 law a "fallacious" argument, questioned why Hurst should not be resentenced under the new law.

Davis said that, by applying the new law retroactively, "you've essentially ignored" the law that requires the sentences to be reduced.

"So you think the Legislature intended to provide a gap and give all the defendants that had previously been sentenced to death a life sentence? You think that is even remotely the case?" Pariente said.

Assistant Attorney General Carine Mitz argued that the "plain language" of the 1972 law is clear.

"It doesn't say the death penalty statute. It doesn't say Florida's death penalty statute. It specifically says the death penalty," Mitz said.

The justices also focused much of Thursday's hearing on the issue of "harmless error," a legal term meaning that any other jury would come to the same conclusion.

Hurst was sentenced to death for the 1998 killing of fast-food worker Cynthia Harrison in Pensacola. Harrison, an assistant manager at a Popeye's Fried Chicken restaurant where Hurst worked, was bound, gagged and stabbed more than 60 times. Her body was found in a freezer.

The jury in the Hurst case recommended a death sentence to the judge, but its vote was split seven to five.

Davis argued that harmless error does not apply in Hurst's case because "there was no jury verdict" on his death sentence.

"Harmless error analysis presumes that you have a legal verdict. In this case, we don't. It was just merely a recommendation. We don't know what factors the jury found. … And not only that, we don't know what weight they gave to them. So the whole harmless error idea just falls apart," Davis told reporters after the hearing.

But Mitz said that any jury would return the same recommendation when reconsidering the circumstances of Hurst's case.

Justice Charles Canady stepped in to support Mitz's arguments.

"Based on the facts, isn't there a strong case, that you're trying to make, that any rational jury necessarily would have found those two aggravators on which the trial court relied in imposing the sentence?" he asked.

Pariente and Quince also expressed concerns about the constitutionality of Florida's new death penalty law, at least in part because it only requires juries to decide that one aggravating factor exists for the death penalty to be imposed.

"The worst thing would be … a new statute that has constitutional infirmities that we then are applying across all these prosecutions and 10 years from now we end up with another 100, 200 people on Death Row, and no one gets to what the state wants, which is to have the worst of the worst executed," Pariente said.

But Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is a former prosecutor, said in a telephone interview that the state's new law is firm.

"If one looks at the Florida Supreme Court's treatment of death penalty cases, it's obvious that it is a liberal court that doesn't like the death penalty. Therefore, it's not surprising that they will look to pick apart and find flaws in what should be obviously a constitutional statute that conforms to what the U.S. Supreme Court has done," he said.