TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The fate of convicted killers on Florida’s death row - as well as the fate of people awaiting trial for murder - was put in limbo Friday after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that death sentences require a unanimous jury.
By a 5-2 vote the court struck down a newly enacted law allowing a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 out of 12 jurors recommend it. The court added that the new law can no longer be applied to pending prosecutions in the state.
Meanwhile, in another important decision Friday, the court opened the door to inmates already on death row getting their sentences reduced.
By a 5-2 vote, justices concluded that Timothy Lee Hurst - convicted of a 1998 murder at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant- deserves a new sentencing hearing.
A jury had divided 7-5 over whether Hurst deserved the death penalty, but a judge imposed the sentence. The state Supreme Court initially upheld his sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court this past January declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional and forced the state court to reconsider.
That ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court led the state to halt two pending executions. State legislators responded by overhauling the law and requiring that at least 10 out of 12 jurors must recommend execution for it to be carried out. Florida previously required that a majority of jurors recommend the death sentence.
But justices said that change didn’t do enough.
“If ‘death is different,’ as this Court and the United States Supreme Court have repeatedly pronounced, then requiring unanimity in the jury’s final recommendation of life or death is an essential prerequisite to the continued constitutionality of the death penalty in this state,” wrote Justice Barbara Pariente in a concurring opinion with one of the rulings.
Justices in their ruling did reject a request that all 385 inmates on Florida’s death row have their sentences reduced to life in prison. But based on the court’s decision in the Hurst case other inmates may wind up seeking new sentences.
Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott, said the governor’s office was “reviewing” the ruling and did not have any further comment.
The court’s decision means the Florida Legislature will have to overhaul the death penalty law once again. Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol for a one-day organizational session in November, but they are not scheduled to hold a regular session until March.