Florida's Death Penalty Rules Could Change

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By: Matt Galka
October 13, 2015

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday morning in a case that could have a huge impact in Florida. The ruling could alter the state’s death penalty system in a dramatic way.

Timothy Hurst was sentenced to death for a 1998 murder of his manager at a Pensacola Popeyes. Hurst tied the manager up and stabbed her to death in the freezer. A jury came to a 7-5 recommendation of the death penalty. Hurst is challenging the non-unanimous decision as unconstitutional. Florida is the only state that allows non-unanimous death penalty recommendations from a jury nor does it require an explanation of factors. A judge then makes the ultimate decision.

Michael Sheedy with the Florida Catholic Conference says they’ve been pushing for reform for years.

“We’ve long opposed the use of the death penalty, but in the case the US Supreme Court is going to look at Florida’s death penalty mechanism, which we’ve long seen as needing to be overhauled and improved,” he said.

A bill has already been filed in the state legislature that would mandate future death penalty recommendations be unanimous.

State Representative Jose Rodriguez is one of the bill’s sponsors. He says if a ruling comes down after legislative session ends and no bill has been passed, Florida could be in a tight spot.

“It may very well be, that the legislature is in the position of either having to call a special session or possibly not having a death penalty for some temporary period,” said Rep. Rodriguez (D-Miami).
Clemency attorney Reggie Garcia says the uncertainty puts a lot of people in limbo.

“400 Florida inmates which puts us second in the country on death row, so certainly, lawyers as well as the inmates and their families will be watching these decisions closely,” he said.

The bill on death penalty reform has yet to be scheduled for a legislative hearing.

By: Associated Press
October 13, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Florida's unique system for imposing the death penalty is encountering some skeptics on the Supreme Court.

But it was not clear Tuesday whether a majority would find that the state gives judges too much power to decide capital sentences.

The justices heard arguments in the case of inmate Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of killing his manager at a Popeye's restaurant in Pensacola. A jury divided 7-5 in favor of death, but a judge imposed the sentence.

Hurst's attorney argues that Florida's system is unconstitutional because juries play only an advisory role in recommending death. The judge considers factors independently and can reach a different decision.

Florida's solicitor general says the system works because a jury first decides if the defendant is eligible for the death penalty.

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