Al Drago / CQ Roll Call

Supreme Court ruling leaves Florida death row inmates in limbo

Court decision calling Florida’s death sentencing system unconstitutional leaves fate of 390 awaiting execution unknown

The fates of the 390 inmates on Florida's death row are uncertain after the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down the state's capital punishment sentencing process.

Two upcoming executions, scheduled for February and March, could be affected, as the Florida Supreme Court agreed to consider arguments on whether the ruling by the U.S. high court applies retroactively.

The American Bar Association said Florida should hold off on pending executions until the courts and lawmakers have addressed the fallout from the ruling.

“The current death penalty scheme in Florida is in limbo,” said Sarah Turberville, the director of justice programs for the Constitution Project, a bipartisan legal rights advocacy group.

In an 8-1 decision on Tuesday, U.S. justices found that Florida unconstitutionally gives judges powers that juries should wield. The ruling invalidated a system that has allowed judges, rather than juries, to specify the aggravating factors that determine a defendant's eligibility for execution.

While experts say the impact on other states is limited, changes in Florida could dramatically shift the U.S. landscape for capital punishment. Florida's death row is second in size only to California, which has not carried out an execution in a decade, the Death Penalty Information Center reports.

Some experts argued that scores of death sentences in Florida could be seen as flawed.

On the retroactivity issue, Karen Gottlieb, a co-director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University in Miami, said, “I don’t think it's possible to find a case that is not affected.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said state laws must be rewritten but did not indicate how broadly. “The impact of the court's ruling on existing death sentences will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

Just how much the Republican-controlled legislature is willing to reform the state's death penalty sentencing process remains to be seen.

“There is no appetite to repeal the death penalty,” said Carlos Trujillo, the chairman of the criminal justice subcommittee in the Florida House of Representatives. He added that he expected to introduce a bill addressing only the issues raised in the decision.

In the case reviewed by the high court, a jury voted 7-5 to recommend a death sentence for Timothy Hurst in the 1998 murder of a restaurant manager, without specifying what aggravating factors applied.

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