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Justices Reverse Course On Disabilities Issue In Executions

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Florida Department of Corrections
The Florida Channel
The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday scrapped a decision that gave some Death Row inmates another chance to argue that they should be shielded from execution because they have intellectual disabilities.

Saying it made a “clear error” in 2016, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday scrapped a decision that gave some Death Row inmates another chance to argue that they should be shielded from execution because they have intellectual disabilities.

The ruling came a week after justices tossed out a decades-old legal standard about circumstantial evidence in criminal cases, with both opinions reflecting the court’s conservative shift since early last year --- and its willingness to rip up old decisions.

Thursday’s ruling came in an appeal by Death Row inmate Harry Franklin Phillips, who was convicted in the 1982 murder of a probation supervisor in Miami and who contends he should not be executed because of an intellectual disability. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that Phillips failed to meet legal tests to prove such a disability.

But the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014, in a separate case, rejected part of Florida’s tests for determining whether defendants have intellectual disabilities. That part of the tests set a cutoff score of 70 on IQ exams. The U.S. Supreme Court said the state could not use such a “rigid rule.”

The Florida Supreme Court in 2016 ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court decision should be applied retroactively, which could give longtime inmates such as Phillips another chance to prove they have intellectual disabilities and should be spared execution. Thursday’s 4-1 ruling, however, said that applying the decision retroactively was erroneous.

The majority described the U.S. Supreme Court decision as an “evolutionary refinement” of procedures needed to comply with a constitutional ban on executing people with intellectual disabilities. As a result, it said the change did not need to be retroactively applied to inmates such as Phillips.

“It (the U.S Supreme Court decision) merely clarified the manner in which courts are to determine whether a capital defendant is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty,” said Thursday’s opinion shared by Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson and Carlos Muniz. “It did not invalidate any statutory means for imposing the death sentence, nor did it prohibit the states from imposing the death penalty against any new category of persons. Before Walls (the 2016 ruling in a case known as Walls v. State), this court had been clear that evolutionary refinements do not apply retroactively.”

But Justice Jorge Labarga wrote a sharply worded dissent, which he said sought to “underscore the unraveling of sound legal holdings in this most consequential area of the law.”

“Yet again, this court has removed an important safeguard in maintaining the integrity of Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence,” Labarga wrote. “The result is an increased risk that certain individuals may be executed, even if they are intellectually disabled --- a risk that this court mitigated just three years ago by holding that the decision in Hall v. Florida (the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case) is to be retroactively applied.”

Labarga was part of a five-member majority in the 2016 ruling on retroactivity, while Canady and Polston dissented. Lawson and Muniz were not on the court at the time. Two seats are currently vacant.

But the Supreme Court has undergone a massive philosophical change since January 2019, when longtime justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince were forced to step down because of a mandatory retirement age. Pariente, Lewis, Quince and Labarga were part of a generally liberal bloc that made up a majority of the court.

Lawson’s appointment to replace former Justice James E.C. Perry in late 2016 created what was often a 4-3 split on the court. But that changed last year when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Muniz, Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa to replace Pariente, Lewis and Quince.

While Luck and Lagoa have since become federal appellate judges, Muniz has combined with Canady, Polston and Lawson to create a solid conservative majority that has shown a willingness to overturn ---- or, in legal terms, “recede from” --- earlier decisions by the court.

Last week, over the objections of Labarga, the court rejected a longstanding legal standard used in criminal cases that only involve circumstantial evidence. The majority said the change would lead to Florida joining federal courts and most other states in how judges weigh such cases, but Labarga wrote that the move eliminated a “reasonable safeguard” in criminal cases.

In Thursday’s decision, the majority pointed, in part, to the value of maintaining “finality” in Phillips’ case.

“The surviving victims, society-at-large and the state all have a weighty interest in not having Phillips’ death sentence set aside for the relitigation of his claim of intellectual disability based on Hall’s evolutionary refinement in the law,” the majority wrote.

But Labarga bristled at that reasoning.

“In justifying its holding, the majority discusses the need for finality in the judicial process,” Labarga wrote. “I agree that finality is a fundamental component of a functioning judicial system. However, we simply cannot be blinded by an interest in finality when that interest leaves open the genuine possibility that an individual will be executed because he is not permitted consideration of his intellectual disability claim.”

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.