Beginning in January 2020 and continuing through October, a newly constituted Florida Supreme Court spent the year reversing many of its prior decisions. In addition to notable reversals in other areas of criminal and civil law, the court overturned several significant death penalty rulings, including law that had been on the books for decades.
Unanimous Jury Decisions
In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court decided Hurst v. State, following the US. Supreme Court’s Hurst v. Florida ruling earlier the same year. The opinions concerned Florida’s capital sentencing scheme, which permitted a judge to override a jury’s recommendation of life and instead sentence a capital defendant to death. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, the Florida Supreme Court in Hurst v. State ruled that a jury, not a judge, must be the finders of fact in determining aggravating factors, in weighing aggravating versus mitigating factors, and in the ultimate sentencing decision, and that the jury must make these findings unanimously. In a subsequent decision, the court further instructed that its decision would apply retroactively to trials from 2002 on, rendering over 150 Florida death row prisoners eligible for resentencing. In the years that followed, many of these prisoners received sentence reversals and were in various stages of the resentencing process when the court abruptly walked back its decision in January 2020.
In January, following the mandatory retirement of three justices that been in the Hurst v. State majority, the Florida high court reversed itself. In State v. Poole, the Florida Supreme Court held that its prior decision had mistakenly conflated the jury’s “eligibility” decision (the finding that a defendant is guilty of a crime and at least one aggravator sufficient to impose death) with its “selection” decision (the finding that the defendant should be sentenced to death). The court found that the U.S. Supreme Court had actually only required a jury, rather than a judge, to be the fact finder in the former category of decisions.
In response to Poole, prosecutors sought reinstatements of vacated death sentences, including in Bessman Okafor’s case, where the Florida Supreme Court had vacated the death sentence on direct appeal under Hurst in 2017, and in Michael James Jackson’s case, in which the trial court granted a new penalty phase on the same grounds in 2017 during post-conviction proceedings. In both cases, the courts of conviction refused the State’s petitions to reinstate the respective death sentences instead of holding resentencing hearings. The Florida Attorney General appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, and on November 25, 2020, the state high court also refused the petitions, upholding the vacaturs in State v. Jackson and State v. Okafor. With no noted dissents in either decision, the court noted the State’s failure to appeal the trial court’s reversal or ask for recall of the high court’s mandate within the applicable time frames.
Intellectual Disability Determinations
In Phillips v. State, decided in March 2020, the Florida Supreme Court receded from another 2016 capital decision, undoing the retroactivity of Walls v. State. In Walls, the court had held that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 Hall v. Florida ruling—which rejected the use of a strict IQ cutoff for assessing intellectual disability claims—would apply to prisoners who had previously had their claims denied. However, the Phillips court undid that determination, holding that Hall constituted a procedural change rather than the necessary “development of fundamental significance” under the state’s retroactivity precedent.
Justice Labarga, who had authored Walls, dissented from the Phillips holding, lambasting the majority’s removal of an “important safeguard” that was crucial in potentially preventing the state from unconstitutionally executing a prisoner with intellectual disability.
Both Poole and Phillips were decided by only five justices, as two of the replacements for the three retired justices had then been appointed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, leaving two vacant Florida Supreme Court seats.
Heightened Scrutiny of Circumstantial Evidence
In May, the Florida Supreme Court issued another reversal in Bush v. State, abandoning the state standard requiring 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.” In receding from its precedent on this issue, the majority argued that Florida was an outlier among state and federal jurisdictions in applying heightened scrutiny to such cases. Bush was decided in the context of a capital conviction, though its effects will be felt across criminal cases.
In his dissent from what he termed a “sweeping decision,” Justice Labarga recognized that the majority “found support in the law” of other jurisdictions, but nonetheless criticized the removal of “another reasonable safeguard in our death penalty jurisprudence.”