A History of the Death Penalty in Florida and What it Means for Capital Defendants
A thorough look at the history of the death penalty in Florida.
IntroductionFlorida is an outlier when comes to decisions regarding the death penalty. Recent Florida Supreme Court decisions have left this state in the company of only a few others in terms of the procedural safeguards afforded to capital defendants. These decisions affect the sentencing process and review process, two incredibly important steps in the treatment of capital defendants. If you or a loved one has been charged with a capital crime, one that could possibly require the imposition of the death penalty, contact a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible to discuss your options. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have kept up to date with Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence and can help you or a loved one navigate this tricky process. Call a Tallahassee defense attorney today at (850) 681-7777 or send an online message to discuss your options during an open and free consultation with a defense attorney in our legal team.
The 1800’sDuring this time, Florida had its first recorded execution: the hanging of murder defendant Benjamin Donica. Florida had the highest rate of deaths by lynching in the United States of America.
The Early 1900’sIn 1923, the Florida Legislature passed a law replacing lynching with the electric chair and declared that all future death penalty executions will be performed under Florida state jurisdiction inside of prisons.
The Late 1900’s to the Early 2000’sIn 1972, Florida passed a new capital punishment statute in response to the United States Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Georgia’s use of the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia. As a response, Florida commuted the death sentences of ninety-five men and one woman to life in prison and the Florida Legislature revised the death penalty statute in the event that the Court reinstated capital punishment in the future.
In 1976, the United States Supreme Court overturned its ruing in Furman and upheld Georgia’s death penalty as constitutional in Gregg v. Georgia. The Supreme Court also upheld Florida’s capital-sentencing procedure in Proffitt v. Florida. In Proffitt, The United States Supreme Court held that the death penalty was not cruel and unusual per se or under Florida’s capital-sentencing procedure. They also decided that it was not unconstitutionally arbitrary and/or capricious under Florida’s procedure even though the trial judge held the sole sentencing authority. The Supreme Court found that this amount of authority held by the trial judge was balanced by the procedure’s requirement that the judge consider a range of mitigating and
In 1976, the United States Supreme Court overturned its ruing in Furman and upheld Georgia’s death penalty as constitutional in Gregg v. Georgia. The Supreme Court also upheld Florida’s capital-sentencing procedure in Proffitt v. Florida. In Proffitt, The United States Supreme Court held that the death penalty was not cruel and unusual per se or under Florida’s capital-sentencing procedure. They also decided that it was not unconstitutionally arbitrary and/or capricious under Florida’s procedure even though the trial judge held the sole sentencing authority. The Supreme Court found that this amount of authority held by the trial judge was balanced by the procedure’s requirement that the judge consider a range of mitigating and aggravating circumstances in their submission of a written explanation of their death-sentence finding for the purpose of automatic review by the Florida Supreme Court.
In 1979, Florida was the first state to execute an individual non-voluntarily following the Gregg decision when they executed John Spenkelink by electric chair for the crime of murder. In the 1990’s, Florida failed to properly execute inmates using the electric chair and switched their execution method to lethal injection. In 2002, Florida hosted the high-profile execution of Aileen Wuornos, the first female serial killer according to popular media at the time.
The 2010’sIn 2016, The United States Supreme Court held in Hurst v. Florida that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because it did not require the jury to make the fact-findings necessary to impose capital punishment. The Supreme Court held that Florida’s sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment’s requirement that a jury, and not a judge, find each fact necessary to impose capital punishment. Before Hurst, Florida’s jury recommendation was advisory and not mandatory, meaning that it could have been overruled by the trial judge, who could singularly impose the death penalty. Then, a simple seven to five majority of jurors could vote to recommend the imposition of the death penalty. In making their decision, the United States Supreme Court relied on 2002 decision Ring v. Arizona, which held that a jury, not a judge, must find each fact necessary to impose capital punishment. As a result, over one hundred and fifty Florida death row inmates became eligible for sentence review, and possibly resentencing. In 2017, the Florida Legislature amended their capital sentencing statute to require a unanimous jury recommendation for imposition of the death penalty in response to the Hurst decision.
2020 to PresentOn January 23, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court reversed its opinion in Hurst v. State, holding that Florida does not require a unanimous jury recommendation in order to impose the death penalty in their decision, State v. Poole. Florida’s Supreme Court reasoned that Hurst’s holding, the Sixth and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution, nor the Florida Constitution requires that the jury recommend a death sentence unanimously nor does it require that a jury make every finding of fact necessary to recommend a sentence of death. This ruling came with heavy consequences for Florida’ capital defendants. In response to Poole, prosecutors sought reinstatements of vacated capital sentences.
In March of 2020, Phillips v. State was decided, and the Florida Supreme Court receded from yet another capital decision. In Phillips, the Court undid the retroactivity of Walls v. State, meaning that this decision could not apply to previously-sentenced defendants. In Walls, the court held that the United States Supreme Court decision, Hall v. Florida, which denied the use of a bright-line IQ cutoff for analyzing intellectual disability claims, would apply to prisoners who had their claims previously denied. In Phillips, the Florida Supreme Court undid that determination and held that Hall was a procedural change, rather than the necessary “development of fundamental significance” that would make the decision retroactive, or applicable to previously-sentenced capital defendants.
In May of 2020, the Florida Supreme Court issued yet another reversal in Bush v. State, a capital conviction case. In Bush, the Florida Supreme Court abandoned the state standard requiring a higher level of scrutiny in the court of appeals when evaluating criminal convictions based solely on circumstantial evidence.
Most recently, on October 29, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court reversed fifty years of precedent via its ruling in Lawrence v. State. Previous precedent required that all capital sentences be reviewed for proportionality on appeal. This review required an appellate court to review a capital sentence and compare it to sentences with similar facts to ensure that the instant sentence was not excessive or disproportionate. The Florida Supreme Court reasoned that this decades-long precedent suddenly could not stand in line with the Florida Constitution’s Conformity Clause, and that the Court had been erroneously conducting proportionality reviews in cases after the 2002 constitutional amendment adding in the Conformity Clause.
What Does This Mean for Capital Defendants?As can be seen from above, Florida has a turbulent history with the use of capital punishment. Recently, in peeling back decades-long precedent, Florida has left capital defendants between a rock and a hard place. The death penalty is now easier to impose in Florida than nearly any other time in civilized history. Convictions can be now based upon impermissibly stacked inferences. Sentences no longer need to be based upon a unanimous jury finding. Furthermore, sentences cannot be reviewed for proportionality, seemingly in conflict with the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Florida’s recent death penalty decisions have left this state in the stark minority in terms of protection for capital defendants.
Article Written By Gabrielle D’Esposito