Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court reversed its opinion in Hurst v. State ruling that Florida does not require a jury to be unanimous when someone is being sentenced to death. You can read the per curiam opinion in the case of State of Florida v. Poole by clicking on the image shown below:
Reasons for Hurst Reversal: Florida Supreme Court Opinion
Why is the state supreme court reversing itself on requiring the jury to be unanimous before someone is sentenced to death? From the opinion:
“This Court clearly erred in Hurst v. State by requiring that the jury make any finding beyond the section 921.141(3)(a) eligibility finding of one or more statutory aggravating circumstances. Neither Hurst v. Florida, nor the Sixth or Eighth Amendment, nor the Florida Constitution mandates that the jury make the section 941.121(3)(b) selection finding or that the jury recommend a sentence of death.” Poole, p. 28.
“It is no small matter for one Court to conclude that a predecessor Court has clearly erred. The later Court must approach precedent presuming that the earlier Court faithfully and competently carried out its duty. A conclusion that the earlier Court erred must be based on a searching inquiry, conducted with minds open to the possibility of reasonable differences of opinion. “[T]here is room for honest disagreement, even as we endeavor to find the correct answer.” Gamble v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 1960, 1986 (2019) (Thomas, J., concurring).
“In this case we cannot escape the conclusion that, to the extent it went beyond what a correct interpretation of Hurst v. Florida required, our Court in Hurst v. State got it wrong. We say that based on our thorough review of Hurst v. Florida, of the Supreme Court’s Sixth and Eighth Amendment precedents, and of our own state’s laws, constitution, and judicial precedents. Without legal justification, this Court used Hurst v. Florida—a narrow and predictable ruling that should have had limited practical effect on the administration of the death penalty in our state as an occasion to disregard decades of settled Supreme Court and Florida precedent.
“Under these circumstances, it would be unreasonable for us not to recede from Hurst v. State’s erroneous holdings.”
Poole Dissent by Justice LaBarga: Death is Different
In a dissent worthy of reading in its entirety, Justice LaBarga writes (emphasis added):
“I strongly object to the characterization of this Court’s decision in Hurst v. State as one where this Court ‘wrongly took [discretion] from the political branches.’ Majority op. at 39. As the court of last resort in Florida’s third and co-equal branch of government—whose responsibility it is to interpret the law— that is what this Court did in Hurst v. State. The constitutionality of a provision of Florida’s death penalty law is uniquely this Court’s to interpret. Death is indeed different. When the government metes out the ultimate sanction, it must do so narrowly and in response to the most aggravated and least mitigated of murders. Florida’s former bare majority requirement permitted a jury, with little more than a preponderance of the jurors, to recommend that a person be put to death.
“This Court correctly decided that in Florida, the state and federal constitutions require much more and, until today, for a “brief and shining moment,” it did just that.
“Sadly, this Court has retreated from the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions in the United States that require a unanimous jury recommendation of death. In so doing, this Court has taken a giant step backward and removed a significant safeguard for the just application of the death penalty in Florida.”
Curveball Case: What Happens Now?
Before Hurst v. State came down in 2016, Florida death sentences needed only a recommendation for capital punishment from a majority of the jury before the death penalty could be imposed by the judge at sentencing. Afterwards, the Florida Legislature acted, and passed a law requiring unanimous juries in capital cases.
This opinion throws a curveball that raises all sorts of questions about what happens in its aftermath. For instance:
- One result of Poole is the chance that Tallahassee legislators may decide to change their post-Hurst statute that establishes unanimous juries for death penalty sentences in Florida.
- Another repercussion from Poole is Mark Anthony Poole will now be sentenced to the death penalty.
- And of course, the obvious result: once Poole is final (e.g., there’s the limited time period where a motion for reconsideration can be filed), there are all those post-Hurst resentencing hearings which may be in limbo or reversed, returning them to death row.
Finally, there is the very real likelihood that in the future, an innocent person will be sentenced to death in the State of Florida. As Justice LaBarga notes in his dissent, Florida “… holds the shameful national title as the state with the most death row exonerations.” Without the protection of a jury voting unanimously for death, this risk can only increase.