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Death Penalty In Florida Under Legal Review

Florida’s Supreme Court, according to some observers, may have provided a glimpse into the future of the state's death penalty statute. 

The justices giveth, and the justices taketh away. The court voted 5-2 Wednesday to forbid the state from imposing the death penalty in pending prosecutions, only to withdraw the order a few hours later. In the opinion, the court wrote that the entire death penalty law was unconstitutional, but the withdrawal came because of “human error.”

The case out of central Florida involves Larry Darnell Perry, who is accused of killing his infant son in 2013 and is scheduled for trial next month. The defense argues that Perry is intellectually disabled, and not eligible for the death penalty.

“There was a typographical error; the wrong statute number was cited,” said Bill Eddins, State Attorney for the First Judicial Circuit which covers Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton Counties. “And in addition, Judge Polston in his dissent, commented on two other cases that have not been issued yet.”

Polston asked whether the new law could apply to cases already underway. Eddins says the court will fix the glitch and re-issue it, perhaps as early as next week; but it’s not expected to impact such cases in his circuit.

“We have approximately 12 death penalty cases we’re pursuing presently that are pending,” Eddins said. “In all of those cases we are continually moving forward with the discovery process.”

State Attorney Bill Eddins, 1st Judicial Circuit
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
State Attorney Bill Eddins, 1st Judicial Circuit

At this time, none of those death penalty cases are scheduled for trial, and probably won’t be until the Legislature passes a new death penalty statute in the 2017 session that begins March 7th. Eddins and Florida’s other prosecutors are pushing to get the bill on the fast track.

Eddins was asked how much of the court’s ruling in the Perry case has its genesis in that of Timothy Lee Hurst – who’s on death row for the 1998 murder of a fast-food worker in Pensacola.

“All of it,” said Eddins. “Hurst received the death penalty by an 11-1 vote, then that case was reversed because of the questions about the effectiveness of his counsel.”

Hurst was re-tried and convicted again. This time, the jury voted 7-5 for execution, which was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s method of imposing execution was unconstitutional – because it gave too much power to judges rather than juries.

“The Legislature passed a law requiring that the death penalty vote be advisory, but it be 10-2,” Eddins said. “In October, the Florida Supreme Court ruled you had to have a unanimous jury verdict before you could impose the death penalty.”

While State Attorney Bill Eddins says it’s business as usual in his circuit, other prosecutors could find themselves in a troubling limbo -- that they may be taking a risk by seeking the death penalty in murder cases at this time. It appears the key is fast action by lawmakers in crafting a new statute. 

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Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.