The opinion in the case of Peterson v. State of Florida was released this week, and in it the Florida Supreme Court summarily reviewed the argument that the death penalty statute passed by the Florida Legislature does not pass constitutional muster because Florida's death penalty scheme is unconstitutional under Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002).
Federal Appellate Court Reviewing District Judge Opinion: Florida Scheme Is Unconstitutional
The same argument -- that the Florida death penalty scheme cannot meet the requirements of the United States Supreme Court opinion in Ring v. Arizona -- was held to be valid by a federal district court in Florida last summer. You can read the opinion of U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez here.
Judge Martinez's decision is currently being reviewed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals; for details, check out our April 2012 post (with its links).
Florida Supreme Court Rules That Ring v. Arizona Is Met: Florida Death Penalty Statute Passes Test
In the majority opinion, after lengthy consideration of both the guilt and penalty phases of Peterson's trial, review is then given to the Ring v. Arizona argument with the following result:
... Whether the Court Should Reconsider Bottoson v. Moore and King v. Moore
Finally, Peterson asserts that Florida's death penalty scheme is unconstitutional under Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), because Ring requires a jury determination of facts relied upon to increase maximum sentences in the capital sentencing context and Florida's death penalty statute does not provide for such jury determinations. Specifically, he asks that this Court reconsider its decisions in Bottoson v. Moore, 833 So. 2d 693 (Fla. 2002), and King v. Moore, 831 So. 2d 143 (Fla. 2002). We have consistently rejected claims that Florida's death penalty statute is unconstitutional. See, e.g., Baker v. State, 71 So. 3d 802, 823-24 (Fla. 2011), cert. denied, 132 S. Ct. 1639 (U.S. Feb. 27, 2012) (No. 11-8053); Darling v. State, 966 So. 2d 366, 387 (Fla. 2007); Frances v. State, 970 So. 2d 806, 822 (Fla. 2007). Peterson has not presented any argument that requires us to reconsider this precedent. Thus, we deny relief.
So, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that its death penalty statute is just fine, thank you very much. However, this was not an unianimous decision. Nope.
Three Florida Supreme Court Justices Find Florida Isn't Meeting Ring v. Arizona Standard
Justice Pariente provides a dissent regarding the sentence, with which both Justices Labarga and Perry concur. We provide her dissent in its entirety here:
I concur in affirming Peterson's convictions, but dissent as to his sentence because, based on this record, there is no unanimous finding by a jury that any of the applicable aggravators apply to this case. Peterson was sentenced to death following a seven-to-five jury recommendation absent any fact-finding as to which of the aggravators the jury found. None of the aggravators were aggravators that automatically demonstrate the jury has made the necessary findings to warrant the possibility of a death sentence, such as a prior violent felony or that the murder occurred while in the course of an enumerated felony that also was found by the jury. For the reasons explained more fully in my dissent in Butler v. State, 842 So. 2d 817, 835-40 (Fla. 2003) (Pariente, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part), I continue to believe that Florida's death penalty statute, as applied in circumstances like those presented in this case, is unconstitutional under Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002). Whether our statute meets the requirements of the Federal Constitution will be an issue for the United States Supreme Court to decide. However, the fact that we do not require unanimity in fact-finding as to the aggravators necessary to impose the death penalty is, in my view, an independent violation of Florida's constitutional right to trial by jury.
Under our current sentencing scheme, not all defendants who are convicted of first-degree murder are eligible for a sentence of death. The trial judge must make additional findings before the death penalty can be imposed. See generally § 775.082, Fla. Stat. (2011). Without these findings, a trial court cannot impose a higher sentence than life imprisonment on the basis of the verdict alone. See § 775.082(1), Fla. Stat. (stating that without findings by the court that a defendant "shall be punished by death, . . . such person shall be punished by life imprisonment"). It is only after a sentencing hearing and additional findings of fact regarding aggravators and mitigators that the sentence of death may be imposed. Not only is this requirement imposed by Florida law, but it is constitutionally mandated by the Eighth Amendment to prevent death sentences from being arbitrarily imposed.
In addition, as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court in Ring, the Sixth Amendment requires that a jury find those aggravating factors. As Justice Scalia explained in his concurring opinion in Ring, the bottom line is that "the fundamental meaning of the jury-trial guarantee of the Sixth Amendment is that all facts essential to imposition of the level of punishment that the defendant receives—whether the statute calls them elements of the offense, sentencing factors, or Mary Jane—must be found by a jury." Ring, 536 U.S. at 610 (Scalia, J., concurring).
In Ring, the United States Supreme Court held that Arizona's sentencing scheme violated the Constitution—a scheme that was quite similar to Florida's in that under Arizona's prior statutory scheme, the maximum punishment allowed by law on the