March 11, 2020 U.S. Supreme Court News

Florida Supreme Court “Recedes” from Major Death Penalty Decision Creating Uncertainty About Status of Dozens of Cases

The Florida Supreme Court Building in Tallahassee, Florida

The Florida Supreme Court Building in Tallahassee, Florida

© User: Bruin79 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

On January 23, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court issued its 4-1 opinion in State v. Poole, rejecting key tenets of a landmark ruling made by the same court only four years earlier in Hurst v. State. This rapid turnaround came after three justices who had been in the majority in Hurst were forced to resign from the court after reaching the state’s mandatory retirement age of 75. Although Governor Rick DeSantis appointed three new justices to the court, two of the three were then appointed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals by President Donald Trump, leaving the five-member court to preside over the appeal in Poole.

Background: Hurst v. Florida & Hurst v. State

On January 12, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Hurst v. Florida finding Florida’s death penalty scheme unconstitutional insofar as it relied on judicial fact-finding to sentence a defendant to death, treating the jury function as only advisory in nature. In issuing this ruling, the Court relied on its 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona, which held that a jury, not a judge, must find the aggravating factors necessary to impose a death sentence. In all capital cases prior to 2016, Florida juries gave the judge a sentencing recommendation, which the judge considered before weighing the aggravating and mitigating factors and imposing a sentence. The jury verdict forms did not specify how the jurors decided as to the existence of aggravating factors, mitigating factors, or whether the aggravators outweighed the mitigators. In March 2016, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, the Florida legislature re-wrote its capital sentencing statute to require juries unanimously find the existence of at least one aggravating factor and recommend a sentence of death by a vote of at least 10-2. 

In October 2016, however, the Florida Supreme Court issued its ruling in Hurst v. State, holding that under state and federal law, Florida juries 1) must unanimously find aggravating factors proven beyond a reasonable doubt, 2) unanimously find that the aggravating factors are sufficient to impose death, 3) unanimously find that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors, and 4) unanimously recommend a sentence of death. Thus, the court found, the legislative amendment to the state’s death penalty statute made in March of 2016 was unconstitutional as it did not require a unanimous recommendation for death. The court also held that the decision applied retroactively to cases that were not final as of the date of the 2002 Ring ruling. As a result, over 150 Florida death row prisoners became eligible for resentencing. In March 2017, the Florida legislature again amended its death penalty statute, this time requiring a unanimous jury recommendation for death in response to Hurst v. State.

State v. Poole

In State v. Poole, a newly reconstituted Florida Supreme Court held that the 2016 ruling in Hurst v. State was made in error and was based on a fundamental misreading of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Hurst v. Florida. In reaching this conclusion, the Poole court focused heavily on the distinction between two aspects of the capital decision-making process that it said the court in Hurst v. State misunderstood: the “eligibility” decision (finding that a defendant is guilty of a crime and at least one aggravator sufficient to impose death) and the “selection” decision (finding that the defendant should be sentenced to death). The Poole court found that pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hurst v. Florida, the Sixth Amendment only requires eligibility decisions to be made unanimously by a jury “because they are the equivalent of elements of a crime.” The Poole court found that the U.S. Supreme Court was silent as to whether the selection decision must also be made by a jury under the Sixth Amendment. Therefore, the Poole court concluded, the Florida Supreme Court’s earlier ruling requiring both eligibility and selection decisions to be made unanimously by a jury was incorrect. The Poole court reasoned further that eligibility decisions require the jury to make purely factual determinations about aggravating factors, whereas selection decisions are subjective determinations that cannot be objectively verified and do not in themselves expose a defendant to a greater punishment.

The court in Poole held that the only relevant question when evaluating a death sentence under Hurst was whether the jury had found one aggravating factor sufficient to expose the defendant to a possible death sentence. In Mr. Poole’s case, because the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder as well as attempted first-degree murder, sexual battery, armed burglary, and armed robbery—and because each of those crimes could serve as an aggravator sufficient to expose Mr. Poole to a possible death sentence—the court held that he was not entitled to relief under Hurst. Instead, the court wrote that “we must recede from Hurst v. State except to the extent that it held that a jury must unanimously find the existence of a statutory aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Poole decision marked an unusually quick reversal by a court of its own decision, contrary to core legal principles that favor consistent treatment of legal questions that have already been decided by a court when they arise in future cases. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that this approach promotes both predictability and the integrity of the judicial process. Justifying its actions, the Poole court said that while it has “consistently acknowledged the importance of stare decisis, it has been willing to correct its mistakes.” The court determined that the reliance interests in cases like Mr. Poole’s, which involve reliance on procedural and evidentiary rules, are low and therefore do not constitute a valid reason to uphold a wrongly decided case.

The majority gives the green light to return to a practice that is not only inconsistent with laws of all but one of the 29 states that retain the death penalty, but inconsistent with the law governing the federal death penalty.

Justice Jorge Labarga

Poole in context and possible repercussions

Every death penalty state—except Alabama—as well as the federal death penalty system requires that the jury unanimously recommend a death sentence. In his dissent in Poole, Justice Jorge Labarga emphasized this discrepancy, writing that Florida had returned “to its status as an absolute outlier among the jurisdictions in this country that utilize the death penalty. The majority gives the green light to return to a practice that is not only inconsistent with laws of all but one of the 29 states that retain the death penalty, but inconsistent with the law governing the federal death penalty.” Justice Labarga further criticized the majority opinion as “remov[ing] a significant safeguard to the application of the death penalty in Florida,” noting that Florida remains the state with the highest number of death row exonerations. Twenty-nine Florida death row prisoners have been exonerated, approximately one for every three prisoners executed in the state in the modern death penalty era.

Currently, the status of the scores of death row prisoners who were granted penalty phase relief under Hurst is uncertain. The mid-course reversal of the Hurst precedent has created several arbitrary distinctions between which prisoners can obtain relief from non-unanimous death sentences and which cannot. Some prisoners have already received Hurst relief and have been resentenced; some were about to begin resentencing hearings when Poole was decided; and some that were awaiting their turn in line as courts worked through judicial dockets. Where any particular prisoner falls within these categories is largely a matter of chance—influenced by factors such as weather delays, illness of court officers, and other issues well beyond the prisoners’ control and unrelated to the nature of the underlying criminal case.

As of January 2020, 34 prisoners who were eligible for Hurst relief had been resentenced to life, four had been resentenced to death, two had been exonerated, and grants of sentencing relief were reversed in two other cases. Dozens of others have yet to commence resentencing proceedings. It is now unclear which, if any, of the impacted prisoners will receive the benefit of Hurst. Currently a motion for reconsideration of the Poole decision is pending before the Florida Supreme Court.