Death penalty moves in Florida, Alabama after Supreme Court ruling

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 03, 2016 5:42 PM

By Letitia Stein

TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - The impact of a recent Supreme Court ruling on the death penalty reverberated in two states on Thursday, as Florida legislators rewrote their capital punishment sentencing rules and an Alabama judge declared a similar law unconstitutional.

The high court struck down Florida's death sentencing scheme earlier this year, ruling that the state unconstitutionally gave judges powers that juries should wield in determining a defendant's eligibility for execution.

The high court's 8-1 ruling invalidated the process by which a judge sentenced Timothy Hurst to death for the 1998 murder of a fried-chicken restaurant manager.

Since the ruling, executions have been on hold in Florida, home to the nation's second-largest death row with 389 inmates.

To preserve capital punishment in the state, Florida's Republican-controlled legislature on Thursday passed a law making juries responsible for finding death penalty eligibility.

The bill sent to Republican Governor Rick Scott requires at least 10 of 12 jurors to agree on death sentences in murder cases, and they must have unanimously agreed on the facts, or aggravating factors, warranting it.

In the Hurst case, a jury recommended execution in a 7-5 vote, but did not specify what aggravating factors it had found.

The pending change does not apply to current death row inmates, whose sentences are under review by the Florida Supreme Court.

Experts have been awaiting the impact of the high court's ruling in Alabama and Delaware, which also allow judges to impose death sentences without a unanimous jury finding.

In Alabama, a state circuit court judge on Thursday cited the Hurst decision in ruling her state's sentencing scheme unconstitutional.

"I barred the death penalty in the cases that I heard," Judge Tracie Todd of Alabama's 10th Judicial Circuit told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Her ruling applied only to four death row inmates, she noted. If the decision is appealed, and an appellate court upholds it, the ruling could have broader reach.

Her ruling cited research that Alabama judges have overridden jury decisions more than 100 times in four decades, largely to impose death sentences.

Such judicial override helps to explain why Alabama has the nation's fourth-largest death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. The state currently has 183 death row inmates.

"It was pretty clear early on that Hurst’s potential impact could extend beyond just Florida," said the center's executive director Robert Dunham, noting that the Delaware Supreme Court was briefed on the issue earlier this week.

(Additional reporting by Bill Cotterell in Tallahassee, Fla. Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Andrew Hay)