Part 2: On how a ruling from 2002 brought to a halt Florida's death penalty 14 years later

All executions in the state of Florida have been on hold since Jan. 12, 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling declaring unconstitutional the way the state has been sentencing convicted individuals to death.

That decision, in the case of Timothy Hurst v. Florida, triggered a domino effect of legal challenges, which means that, for almost a year, Florida has had essentially no death penalty and the 384 prisoners on Death Row don’t know where they stand. The whole system is in limbo.

The chain of events that led to the current situation actually started in 2002. Back then, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Timothy Ring v. Arizona, that judges can’t have the final say when sentencing someone to death. Only juries can do that, as establish in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In that same year, 2002, the Florida Supreme Court decided that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling didn’t apply to Florida, even though it had a very similar system to Arizona’s, where judges and not juries handed down death sentences.

The U.S. Supreme Court in the Ring decision, did not explicitly overturn a case that Florida relied on to justify its system, Hildwin v. Florida. The Florida Supreme Court, then interpreted that to mean the Florida’s system wasn’t unconstitutional.

The Florida Supreme Court In 2002

Standing (L-R): R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, Harry Lee Anstead, Chief Justice Charles

The U.S. Supreme Court wasn’t very clear at the time, says former state Justice Charley Wells, so he said the court did its best to interpret the ruling in Ring v. Arizona.

“And I am really critical of the U.S. Supreme Court for not being more definitive,” said Justice Wells. “You're always grappling when there is a change in the law with how does that affect the cases that have been tried under the existing law. And that just sets up a conundrum when you're dealing with death. “

Fast forward 14 years to the Hurst v. Florida decision. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that their 2002 decision about who can sentence someone to death did apply to Florida. In practical terms, it means that the state’s death penalty has essentially been unconstitutional since 2002.

The Hurst decision came out in January 2016, which halted Mike Lambrix’s imminent execution and threw out the state’s existing laws about how to sentence someone to death.

Source: SCOTUS blog

Timothy Hurst's lawyer, Seth Waxman

It also prompted two key questions: How should the state rewrite rules for cases moving forward? What should be done with the 384 people who were sentenced under a now-unconstitutional system?

Trying to address the first question, the Florida Legislature approved new sentencing rules on March 3, 2016. But those were thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court just a few months later on Oct, 14, because they allowed a non-unanimous jury to send someone to Death Row.

The Florida Supreme Court said a constitutional system has to have a unanimous jury for death penalty cases. So, until the Legislature writes new rules requiring a jury to be unanimous and have the final say in sentencing, no one can be given the death penalty in Florida.

The beginning of an answer for the pressing question of what happens to the people who were already sentenced and are living on Death Row came in the form of two decisions published on Dec. 22, 2016 in the separate cases of Mark Asay and John Mosley, both Death Row inmates.

The Florida Supreme Court opinions issued then said that about half of the people on Death Row - between 150 and 200 - will now get a chance at a new sentence. The question before the courts is not whether these people are innocent or guilty - that was already decided by a jury of their peers as required by the Sixth Amendment -, but whether they will be executed.

The others on Death Row will not get that chance.

The dividing line between those two groups is that Ring v. Arizona decision from back in 2002. People whose sentences were final before then will not have their cases automatically reexamined at this point. Inmates whose sentences were finalized after that date, they get a second chance.

But this dividing line is being challenged, so things are still up in the air.

“This has been handled in a piecemeal way,” said Charley Wells. “The consequences of that are confusion, and it’s unfortunate for everyone that is involved in the system because of that confusion.”

Confusion -- when you’re literally talking about a matter of life and death.

Go to Part 3