July 24, 2020

Florida Supreme Court Continues to Overturn Precedent in Death Penalty Cases

Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga, the lone dissenter in Phillips v. State, expressed concern over the integrity of Florida's jurisprudence.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga, the lone dissenter in Phillips v. State, expressed concern over the integrity of Florida's jurisprudence.

© User: Bruin79 / Wikimedia Commons / (CC BY 2.5)

On May 21, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court issued its 4-1 opinion in Phillips v. State, receding from a ruling made by the same court four years earlier in Walls v. State regarding the retroactivity of intervening Supreme Court precedent on intellectual disability. Since Walls was decided, three justices were forced to retire from the court upon reaching Florida’s mandatory retirement age. Although Governor Ron DeSantis appointed three new justices to fill these vacancies, President Donald Trump then appointed two of these justices to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Governor DeSantis’s 60-day deadline to select new justices was originally set to expire on March 23, 2020; however, with the COVID-19 pandemic, this deadline was extended to May 1, 2020. As in State v. Poole—in which the newly reconstituted Florida Supreme Court overruled its earlier decision requiring unanimity in jury recommendations for death—this delay left only a five-member court to preside over the appeal in Phillips.

Hall v. Florida & Walls v. State

On May 27, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Hall v. Florida, finding the Florida standard for determining intellectual disability unconstitutional. In issuing this opinion, the Supreme Court relied on its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, which held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid the imposition of a death sentence on persons with intellectual disability, but which left “to the States the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon its execution of sentences.” In Hall, the Supreme Court condemned Florida’s refusal to consider intellectual disability claims brought by anyone with an IQ score of 70 or above, because—contrary to professional norms and the body of science on the topic—doing so treated inherently imprecise IQ scores as final and conclusive evidence of intellectual capacity. Intellectual capacity is one of three criteria experts consider in assessing intellectual disability, together with 2) adaptive deficits and 3) onset of these deficits prior to age 18. By refusing to consider evidence of intellectual capacity such as IQ scores at-or-above-70 in concert with the two other criteria analyzed in intellectual disability determinations, the Florida courts were creating an unconstitutional risk that persons with intellectual disability would be executed. The Court found that when a defendant’s IQ score falls within the test’s acknowledged and inherent margin of error, the defendant should be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disability for holistic consideration of the claim.

On October 20, 2016, in Walls v. State, the Florida Supreme Court held that the decision in Hall applies retroactively, finding that Mr. Walls, who had an IQ score of 72 and thus was previously denied consideration of his claim of intellectual disability, was entitled to a new hearing on this claim. Under Florida law, per Witt v. State, a change in the law must “constitute a development of fundamental significance” in order to apply retroactively. The court reasoned that because Hall limits Florida’s ability to impose death sentences on individuals beyond those with an IQ score of 70 or below, Hall is a development of fundamental significance and thus applies retroactively. As a result, defendants previously denied the opportunity to challenge their eligibility for the death penalty on the basis of an IQ score above 70 became eligible for reconsideration of their intellectual disability claims.

Phillips v. State

This year in Phillips v. State, the reconstituted Florida Supreme Court held that the 2016 ruling in Walls was based on a misunderstanding of Hall and therefore needed to be overruled. The Phillips court found that its previous analysis of retroactivity under Witt was mistaken, and that rather than announcing a “development of fundamental significance,” the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hall merely created a new procedural rule allowing those with IQ scores at 70 and above to bring claims of intellectual disability. The Phillips court reasoned that as Florida is already prevented from executing the intellectually disabled under Atkins, Hall does not qualify as a development of fundamental significance that places beyond Florida the authority to impose a certain sentence. This procedural requirement simply provided additional procedural protections to ensure states do not execute members of an already protected group.

The lone dissenter, Justice Labarga, who authored the Walls opinion, condemned the decision: “Yet again, this Court has removed an important safeguard in maintaining the integrity of Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence.” Justice Labarga highlighted that if Hall is not retroactively applied in a uniform manner, Florida may execute an intellectually disabled individual on death row. Justice Labarga also lamented the disparate treatment that would follow from Phillips. Over the past three years, individuals have been granted relief pursuant to Walls, but similarly situated individuals will be denied that relief moving forward.

In his dissent, Justice Labarga alluded to a larger pattern of reversals by the newly configured Florida Supreme Court. On January 23, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court issued a 4-1 opinion in State v. Poole, rejecting key tenets of Hurst v. State, another 2016 case in the same court. In Poole, the court held that their earlier ruling requiring juries unanimously recommend the death penalty was also incorrect.

The new Florida Supreme Court’s atypical treatment of precedent is not unique to its death penalty jurisprudence. In May 2019, in In Re: Amendment to the Florida Evidence Code, the Florida Supreme Court overruled its October 2018 decision in Delisle v. Crane Co, which that Frye provides the appropriate test when determining the reliability of an expert’s scientific evidence. However, a mere seven months later, the Florida Supreme Court reversed its own decision, declaring that it would now use the Daubert standard. On March 12, 2020 in Pedroza v. State, the court ruled that juveniles can receive sentences for terms longer than twenty years without the opportunity for early release. In finding Pedroza’s forty-year sentence constitutional, the court concluded, “to the extent this Court has previously instructed that resentencing is required for all juvenile offenders serving sentences longer than twenty years without the opportunity for early release based on judicial review, it did so in error.” On May 14, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court issued another reversal in Bush v. State, abandoning a Florida standard that required a higher level of scrutiny at the appellate stage for criminal convictions based solely on circumstantial evidence. The court reverted to the more traditional but diminished level of scrutiny on review: whether “a rational trier of fact could have found the existence of the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”

On May 26, 2020, Governor DeSantis announced his two picks to fill the remaining vacancies on the seven-member court.