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Florida Supreme Court Considers Overturning Death Sentences

Prison corridor with inmates in distance
Associated Press
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The lives of nearly 400 death row inmates hang in the balance during oral arguments Thursday before Florida's Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide if their sentences should be reduced to life in prison.

The hearing comes in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that found Florida's system of sentencing people to death unconstitutional.

The nation's high court said Florida's system gave too much power to judges, rather than juries, in imposing capital punishment.

The Florida Supreme Court will not rule Thursday but use the arguments to help decide whether to reduce the sentences of the state's 389 death row inmates.

So far, two executions have been halted because of the ruling, and attorneys for those death row inmates have petitioned the court to change the sentences of all inmates sentenced under the old system to life in prison.

The justices will hear arguments in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of the 1998 murder of his manager at a Pensacola Popeye's restaurant. The jury voted 7-5 in the favor of death, and the judge agreed and imposed the sentence.

Since January's U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Florida passed a new law that requires at least 10 of the 12 jurors to recommend execution. Under the new law, prosecutors must also explain to jurors why the death penalty is the appropriate punishment before a murder trial begins, and the jury has to decide unanimously if at least one of those "aggravating factors" justifies it.

Earlier this week, the effort to reduce the sentences got a boost when a group of former judges including three former state Supreme Court justices and two former American Bar Association presidents urged the court to impose life sentences.

Florida's attorneys have objected to the idea, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling should not apply to cases already decided.