Federal judge rules Florida death sentence policy unconstitutional

[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday that Florida's procedure for imposing the death penalty is unconstitutional. Florida's death penalty statute [Fla Stat Ann § 921.141 text] provides that the jury in a capital case is to make an "advisory sentence" to the court based on whether certain aggravating factors exist that would warrant a sentence of either life imprisonment or death. These aggravating factors include whether the offense was for pecuniary gain, especially heinous or cruel, or whether the homicide was cold, calculated, and premeditated. The court either accepts or rejects this recommendation and then makes findings of its own regarding the existence of sufficient aggravating circumstances. In a 94-page decision, Judge Jose Martinez found that the method by which a death sentence is imposed in Florida violates the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because the jury should be making these findings, not the judge, due to the risk that the judge will base his decision on factors that were not even considered by the jury. To support his decision, Martinez cited Ring v. Arizona [opinion text], a 2002 Supreme Court case ruling that a similar scheme in Arizona was unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLUFL) applauded the decision [press release]:

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. ... It is past time to end state-sponsored executions and replace the unfair, unjust, and unconstitutional death penalty system with mandatory life in prison.
The case at issue is a 1991 murder-for-hire case involving Paul Evans, who was convicted of killing a woman's spouse in exchange for a camcorder, stereo and insurance money. After trial proceedings had concluded, the jury recommended 9-3 that Evans be sentenced to death and the court accepted the recommendation.

The death penalty remains a controversial issue worldwide. In March, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn [official website] signed Senate Bill 3539 [text] into law, which abolished the death penalty [JURIST report] in the state. The law is set to take effect on July 1. According to an Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] report [text, PDF; JURIST report], the number of countries using the death penalty dropped in 2009, but more than 700 people were executed in 18 countries, with the most executions carried out in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the US. Last August, the US District Court for the Southern District of Georgia [official website] heard a habeas petition from Troy Davis, who was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering an off-duty Savannah, Georgia police officer. In a rare move, the federal court heard the habeas petition after Davis had exhausted his state remedies under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act [text], but the court sided against Davis saying that he failed to prove his innocence. Law Offices of the Southern Center for Human Rights [official website] Executive Director Sarah Totonchi argues [JURIST commentary] said that "Troy Davis' case illustrates that US courts simply cannot provide the certainty necessary to impose an irreversible punishment; therefore the death penalty must be abolished."

 

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