Ruling puts fate of Florida death row inmates in question

AP News
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Posted: Jan 13, 2016 3:02 PM

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Convicted killer Michael Lambrix is scheduled to be executed Feb. 11, one of 390 Florida death row inmates whose fate is now in question after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the state's method of imposing death sentences.

Attorney William Hennis said Wednesday he will seek a new sentencing hearing for Lambrix, who was condemned to die in 1984 for the killings of two people he met at a bar and invited home for a spaghetti dinner. Now the Florida Supreme Court said it will consider arguments for how the new ruling affects his case.

The American Civil Liberties Union and American Bar Association have each urged the state to halt current executions until changes can be made and it can be determined how the ruling affects the condemned. The high court took issue with the fact that Florida gives judges the final power to determine a death sentence, saying the Sixth Amendment requires juries to find facts necessary to impose death.

"The bottom line is the Florida death penalty system is unconstitutional," Hennis said.

Several legal experts, however, said the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled a decade ago in a similar Arizona case that decisions like the one affecting Florida cannot be applied retroactively to condemned inmates who have already exhausted their appeals. Still, former Miami U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez said defense lawyers are likely to argue that the new decision should apply to all Florida death row inmates.

"The retroactivity question is difficult, but the short answer is that (the U.S. Supreme Court decision) will apply retroactively at least to all death penalty cases still pending either at the Florida trial court or Florida appellate court level," Jimenez said.

Attorney General Pam Bondi advised in a statement that the situation of current death row inmates will be reviewed in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a "case by case" basis.

Tuesday's 8-1 ruling in the Hurst v. Florida case by the U.S. Supreme Court found the state's sentencing procedure is flawed because it allows judges to reach a different decision than the juries that play only an advisory role in recommending death. Florida's lawyers defended the system, saying juries first decide if a defendant qualifies for a death sentence before the judge has the ultimate word.

Florida has executed 23 inmates since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, the most of any governor since capital punishment was reinstated in Florida in 1979. Inmates are administered a lethal injection, though they still can choose the electric chair.

State legislators said they will devise a new sentencing system in which juries alone make the final decision. Already, defense lawyers around Florida have begun filing motions seeking to delay death penalty trials or sentencing hearings while the issue plays out.

The question is what happens to inmates whose cases and appeals are settled, such as Lambrix.

Lambrix was convicted and sentenced to death for the killings of Clarence Moore and Aleisha Bryant. Prosecutors said Lambrix beat Moore with a tire iron and strangled Bryant in February 1983 after meeting the two at a bar and inviting them back to his trailer for dinner. The jury's death recommendation was not unanimous.

Hennis has already included arguments from the case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in appeals being heard by Florida's Supreme Court. He said he hopes to argue the current appeals next month, but hasn't ruled out filing a new appeal based on the new ruling.

Bondi's office has until noon on Friday to respond to Lambrix's appeal and indicate how the state will proceed in view of the Supreme Court decision.

Meanwhile, some called for the state to halt all executions until a new system is devised. Another inmate, convicted double-murderer Mark Asay, is set for execution March 17. And inmate Oscar Ray Bolin was executed just last week with the Hurst ruling only days from being released.

"Florida should not proceed with pending executions until the courts and legislature have clarified the processes and protections required in all cases decided under the unlawful scheme," said Paulette Brown, the American Bar Association president, in a statement.

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Anderson reported from Miami.