MIAMI (CBSMiami.com) – A South Florida federal judge has ruled that based on the current sentencing statute, Florida's death penalty is unconstitutional. The decision came in ruling in a 20-year-old murder case from Indian River County on Florida's Treasure Coast.
"As the Florida sentencing statue currently operates in practice, the Court finds that the process completed before the imposition of the death penalty is in violation of Ring (v. Arizona) in that the jury's recommendation is not a factual finding sufficient to satisfy the Constitution," wrote U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez.
The case revolved around whether or not a jury could recommend the death penalty without giving specific aggravating circumstances for imposing a sentence beyond the maximum penalty for a given crime, in this case, first degree murder.
The judge also found that current Florida law allows a judge to hear evidence after the jury makes its recommendation but before he imposes sentence. The judge found that violated provisions of the US Constitution that require a jury to make the actual decision as to the death sentence, not just a recommendation.
Judge Martinez said in his ruling, "without a separate hearing and a finding that aggravating factors exist and outweigh any mitigating factors, the defendant cannot be sentenced to death. It is that critical finding-the finding of an aggravating factor-which increases the maximum authorized punishment. This requires a jury determination."
Judge Martinez based his ruling on the Supreme Court case, Ring v. Arizona. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that under the sixth amendment, a jury has to determine if aggravating factors exist for the death penalty.
"Today's ruling by U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez will, if upheld on appeal, have a dramatic, life and death impact on hundreds of defendants convicted or charged with murder," said Kendall Coffey, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, who reviewed the ruling at the request of CBS4.
The ruling could impact cases currently in the system, including the controversial Casey Anthony murder case where the death penalty is being sought by the state.
"Not all death row inmates would benefit from such a holding due to technical issues about when prior Supreme Court decisions became effective," Coffey said. "Many case, though, and certainly pending cases such as Casey Anthony's, would be impacted if this ruling is followed."
The case involved a murder-for-hire conspiracy in Indian River County involving Paul Evans, who made the request for a writ of habeas corpus that sparked the ruling, and three other people. Evans was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for his part in the killing of Alan Pfeiffer in 1991.
Evans was convicted after three trials. The first trial ended in a hung jury; the second trial ended in a mistrial, before a third trial finally convicted him. Evans appealed his case through the Florida court system all the way to the state Supreme Court, which declined to overturn the case in 2002.
Still, Judge Martinez found that part of the problem in the appellate process came from the lack of information from the jury.
"There are no specific findings of fact made by the jury. Indeed, the reviewing courts never know what aggravating circumstance which then outweighs any mitigating circumstances," Judge Martinez wrote. "It is conceivable that some of the jurors did not find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, or that each juror found a different aggravating circumstance, or perhaps all jurors found the existence of an aggravating circumstance but some thought the mitigating circumstances outweighed them."
"More troubling is that there is nothing in the record to show that Mr. Evans's jury found the existence of a single aggravating factor," Judge Martinez wrote. "It cannot be that Mr. Evans's death sentence is constitutional when there is no evidence to suggest that even a simple majority found the existence of any one aggravating circumstance."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office was caught off-guard when CBSMiami.com requested a comment; but eventually did send the following statement:
"The Attorney General's Office will be filing for rehearing in the Evans v. Florida Department of Corrections case," wrote Bondi deputy communications director Jennifer Davis. "The Attorney General's Office believes that the ruling is contrary to relevant decisions by the Florida Supreme Court, Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court as it applies to the imposition of the death penalty in this particular case."
But other state agencies have weighed in on the decision.
"While the full impact of this decision make (sic) take time tom come into effect, it is clear that Florida's death penalty statute is being called into question and all capital litigants should be taking that into consideration," said Suzanne Keffer, chief assistant of the Florida Capital Collateral Regional Counsel.
The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the decision from Judge Martinez.
"This is yet another sign of the systematic injustices that make up Florida's death penalty system - which is already plagued by wrongful convictions, racial inequities, the highest rate of exonerations and inadequate legal representation," said Florida ACLU executive director Howard Simon. "As the foundation of Florida's death penalty system continues to crumble, it becomes harder to justify."
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