Florida Death Penalty Found Unconstitutional: What Happens Next?

The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Florida’s death-penalty practice, concluding that Florida’s current system, in which the jury’s recommendation is combined with the final decision of the judge, violates the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment.

In an 8-1 determination, the court overturned several previous opinions that had upheld the system. Now, Florida’s death penalty scheme is out of synch with the Sixth Amendment and perhaps could be out of commission all together, just as the use of ‘Old Sparky’ in the death chamber. The 10-page ruling is a triumph for death row convict Timothy Lee Hurst, but a direct challenge to Florida state lawmakers, who will have to rewrite the rules to be able to preserve capital punishment.

Current Florida law states, a death sentence requires the finding of at least one aggravating circumstance; for instance, that the killing was particularly heinous, or occurred during the course of some other felony. After considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances the jury makes a nonbinding recommendation of life or death. The final sentencing determination is up to the judge, however “great weight” is to be accorded by the jury’s recommendation.

As a result of the Supreme Court decision there will now be many on death row with a legitimate reason to appeal their case and multiple others will now raise new appeals based upon this decision. Consequently, the public defenders will soon have a huge volume of cases to appeal and they are already underpaid and understaffed without adequate resources.

With over 400 Florida prisoners facing the death penalty, the next hurdle in the race off death row will be whether the courts will apply this retroactively. The high court most recently heard argument on retroactivity in Montgomery v. Louisiana which addressed the Eighth Amendment issue prohibiting sentencing minors to life without parole, but this case has yet to be decided. One thing that is for certain, the aftershock of this ruling will surely be felt in the forthcoming petitions filed on behalf of those currently awaiting their last meal.