Most people sentenced to Florida's death row over the past 15 years were put there under an unconstitutional system and require re-sentencing, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The decision means that roughly 150 people on Florida's death row are expected to need re-sentencing — given an estimate provided by the state high court — and the actual number ultimately could be higher.
The number represents 5% of of the people on death row in the entire country. Florida has the second highest death row population in the country; only California has more people on death row.
This is the latest in a series of complicated rulings from the Florida justices in the wake of a January decision from the US Supreme Court holding that the state's death sentencing law was unconstitutional because it relied on a judge, not a jury, to make the decision to sentence a person to death.
Since that decision in Hurst v. Florida, the Florida high court already has struck down the state's attempt to fix the death sentencing law.
Looking at those currently on death row, the court held this past month that a death sentence imposed following a non-unanimous jury's recommendation — approximately 75% of those on death row — must be re-sentenced.
The court left unanswered whether the Hurst fallout would apply only to those death sentences final after Hurst; from the 2002 date of the earlier US Supreme Court ruling on the issue, Ring v. Arizona; or to all of Florida's death row inmates.
In a pair of rulings on Thursday, the court answered those questions, first holding in Mark James Asay's case that Hurst did not apply retroactively to all of Florida's death row inmates.
"[W]e conclude that Hurst should not be applied retroactively to Asay’s case, in which the death sentence became final before the issuance of Ring," the court held.
Notably, the court detailed that, "Of those defendants currently on death row, approximately 45 percent have sentences that were final before the Supreme Court issued Ring." As such, of the 384 people on Florida's death row, the court ruled on Thursday that about 170 are not eligible for Hurst relief.
In the second case, however, the Florida justices considered those "whose sentences of death became final after the United States Supreme Court decided Ring" — the remaining roughly 210 death sentences.
"Because Florida’s capital sentencing statute has essentially been unconstitutional since Ring in 2002, fairness strongly favors applying Hurst, retroactively to that time," the court held in John Mosley's case.
Further, because the jury in his case only recommended a death sentence on an 8-4 vote, the court held that he must be re-sentenced.
The ruling means the roughly 150 people sentenced to death in Florida since Ring by a nonunanimous jury will get re-sentencing. Others whose death sentences were finalized since Ring could still seek relief, but it would be subject to harmless error analysis and the court has declined to order re-sentencing for those who waived a jury at sentencing.
Chris Geidner is the legal editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. In 2014, Geidner won the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for journalist of the year.
Contact Chris Geidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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