The Slatest

Florida Revamps Death Penalty, but Fate of Nearly 400 on Death Row Is Unclear

Florida Gov. Rick Scott on July 13, 2015, in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Florida has passed a law overhauling the state’s death penalty system to address problems identified by the Supreme Court in a Jan. 12 ruling that halted executions in the state; it remains to be seen whether nearly 400 individuals sentenced to death before the new law will still face capital punishment without resentencing. SCOTUS ruled the state system in which judges, rather than juries, imposed death sentences unconstitutional with an 8–1 ruling in Hurst v. Florida.

The new Florida law, passed by wide bipartisan margins in the state’s House and Senate and signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, requires juries to unanimously affirm the existence of “aggravating factors” that make a crime eligible for punishment by death and requires the votes of 10 out of 12 jurors to impose a death sentence. The 389 individuals already on Florida’s death row, however, were sentenced under the previous system; in a case pending before the state’s Supreme Court, attorneys for the state’s government have argued that Hurst does not invalidate those sentences. The Supreme Court majority opinion in Hurst, written by Sonia Sotomayor, appears to have punted on that question. Here’s SCOTUSBlog on the subject:

The [Hurst] ruling, however, did not immediately spare the life of Timothy Lee Hurst of Pensacola for murdering a co-worker at a fast-food restaurant more than seventeen years ago.  The Court sent back to state courts the question whether the flaw in the sentencing procedure was a “harmless error” — that is, whether Hurst would have been sentenced to death even if Florida had left the decision solely to the jury. 

Florida has executed more prisoners in the past five years than any state except Texas.