The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death sentencing system as unconstitutional on Tuesday, casting doubt on the status of all the state's death sentences.
Florida ranks second in the nation in the number of death row inmates, with 390 men and women currently awaiting execution.
Florida law allows juries in capital cases to recommend a sentence of death, or life in prison without parole — but it is the judge who is charged with finding facts, and judges can and do frequently disregard the jury's recommendation. Indeed, since the state death penalty law was enacted in 1972, judges have disregarded the jury's advisory on some 300 occasions, imposing either the harsher penalty of death or the lesser penalty of life.
In declaring that system unconstitutional, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the court majority, said that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial "requires a jury and not a judge to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." A jury's "mere recommendation is not enough," she said.
The vote was 8-1, with Justice Samuel Alito the lone dissenter.
The decision came in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of the brutal stabbing murder of a co-worker. A jury recommended a death sentence by a 7-5 vote, but without any finding of facts that justified the sentence and no way to know whether even those seven recommending death agreed on a single aggravating factor or justification.
The Florida system was actually upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1980s, a fact the justices acknowledged on Tuesday. But the court went on to say that it was explicitly reversing those earlier decisions because, it said, "the underpinnings" of those rulings have been "eroded by time and subsequent developments in constitutional law."
Since 2000, the court has issued a series of decisions requiring juries, not judges, to make critical fact finding judgments, and in 2002 it struck down an Arizona death penalty statute similar to Florida's. The court would later say that its decision was not retroactive — that it did not apply to those Arizona sentences that had already worked their way through the appeals process in 2002.
But retroactivity is a question that depends in part at least on state law, and the Florida Supreme Court has given greater leeway for retroactivity claims than most other states, according to criminal law specialists.
Michael Radelet, an expert on the Florida death penalty, said the bottom line after Tuesday's ruling is uncertainty.
"The Florida Supreme Court has a dozen different directions that it can go in and the only certain thing is that this is going to be litigated for a long time," he said.
Radelet, now a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said he expects the Florida Supreme Court will at least temporarily block all future executions.
"The next execution is scheduled for Feb. 11 so we'll find out what happens pretty quickly," he added.
Following the ruling, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi issued a statement saying existing death sentences would be examined on a "case-by-case basis":
"In light of today's United States Supreme Court decision holding Florida's capital sentencing procedure unconstitutional, the state will need to make changes to its death-sentencing statutes. ... The impact of the Court's ruling on existing death sentences will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis."
The Supreme Court's Tuesday decision leaves Alabama the last state where a judge can override a jury recommendation to impose a death sentence. There are currently 187 death row inmates in Alabama, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Well over half of those, 101, were sentenced by such life-to-death judicial overrides.