Adding to its series of recent opinions overturning important protections for capital defendants, on October 29, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court reversed decades of precedent requiring that each capital sentence in the state be reviewed for proportionality on appeal. With its 6-1 decision in Lawrence v. Florida, the court announced that it will no longer conduct this proportionality review.
Proportionality review guards against the random imposition of the death penalty in cases that do not warrant it, such as where a death sentence was handed down by an atypical jury, by examining whether the death penalty is an excessive punishment for the crime. Under its “evolving standards of decency” framework, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined over the decades that capital punishment is a disproportionate penalty for minors, persons with intellectual disabilities, non-homicide offenses such as rape, and for defendants whose role in a crime was minor.
The Florida Supreme Court had previously based its proportionality analysis on “objective criteria, including (i) the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty; (ii) the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction; and (iii) the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions.” The court first recognized the doctrine of proportionality in 1973 in State v. Dixon, stating there that “review by th[e] Court guarantees that the reasons present in one case will reach a similar result to that reached under similar circumstances in another case.” Florida’s institution of this protective measure came the year after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated all states’ death penalty statutes due to their arbitrariness in Furman v. Georgia.
Since Dixon, the Florida Supreme Court has evaluated each capital sentence for both the sufficiency of the evidence and its comparative proportionality. In its proportionality review, the court “compare[d] the circumstances presented in the appellant’s case with the circumstances of similar cases to determine whether death is a proportionate punishment.”
By statute, the court conducted this proportionality analysis regardless of whether the defendant challenged the sentence on proportionality grounds, and issued hundreds of opinions analyzing whether the death sentence was proportionate even when a proportionality challenge had not been raised. Over the years, the court reversed several death sentences on proportionality grounds, such as in Robert McCloud and Terrance Tyrone Phillips’ cases in 2016, and Michael Yacob’s case in 2014. In the latter, the court pointedly rejected the dissent’s suggestion “that we should recede from our long-standing precedent requiring [proportionality] review.”
In Lawrence, the majority reasoned that the court’s precedent requiring proportionality review was inconsistent with the Eighth Amendment as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Pulley v. Harris (1984), where the Court denied that proportionality review was constitutionally mandated, while recognizing it as an “additional safeguard” against arbitrary death sentences. The Lawrence majority concluded that the proportionality review requirement was therefore contrary to the conformity clause added to the Florida Constitution in 2002. Referencing Yacob v. State and other post-2002 precedent, the court found that “we have wrongly continued to enforce a state-law requirement for comparative proportionality review.”
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Labarga argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s failure to mandate proportionality review does not mean that the Florida Supreme Court cannot conduct the analysis, or even that it is frowned upon.
The Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence is a loss for all future defendants who will be sentenced to death in Florida without the added safeguard of ensuring on direct appeal that their sentence is proportionate. As Justice Labarga stated in his dissent, “Failing to consider a death sentence in the context of other death penalty cases impairs the reliability of this Court’s decision affirming that sentence.” The Lawrence decision is one of several recent rulings from the Florida Supreme Court that are slowly but surely removing precedential protections put in place to prevent the arbitrary imposition of death sentences that the U.S. Supreme Court banned in Furman.