Evans v. Sec’y, Dept. of Corrections, No. 11-14498: Eleventh Circuit Holds Florida’s Death Penalty Statute Constitutional

by appealattorneylaw

Florida’s criminal defense and criminal appeals attorneys who follow death penalty jurisprudence may be interested to know that the Eleventh Circuit has finally issued an opinion in Evans v. Sec’y, Dept. of Corrections, No. 11-14498, a case where the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida found that Florida’s death penalty statute violated Ring v. Arizona,  536 U.S. 584 (2002).  Not surprisingly, the Eleventh Circuit disagreed with the District Court, and reversed the grant of habeas relief on such basis.

In support of its holding that Florida’s death penalty statute does not violate Ring, the Court first noted that the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that Florida’s judge-based sentencing system does not violate either the 6th or 8th Amendments.  See Evans, slip op. at pgs. 11-16 (citing Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976); Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U.S. 447 (1984); Hildwin v. Florida, 490 U.S. 638 (1989); and, Porter v. McCollum, 558 U.S. 30, —, 130 S.Ct. 447, 453 (2009).

Second, the Court reasoned that the Florida death penalty statute differs from the Arizona death penalty statute at issue in Ring because a Florida jury renders an advisory verdict addressing the existence of aggravating circumstances, and because, inter alia, the sentencing judge must give the jury’s sentencing verdict “great weight” pursuant to Tedder v. State, 322 So. 2d 908, 910 (Fla. 1975).  In discussing the differences between the Florida and Arizona death penalty statutes, the Eleventh Circuit also noted that in Ring and several other opinions, the United States Supreme Court has hinted that Florida’s death penalty scheme might pass constitutional muster.  Evans, slip op. at pgs. 17-25 (citing Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639 (1990); Jones v. United States, 526 U.S. 227, 250–51 (1999); and Hildwin, 490 U.S. 638).

Finally, the Eleventh Circuit noted that although some United States Supreme Court jurisprudence may cast doubt on the constitutionality of Florida’s death penalty scheme, only the United States Supreme Court has the authority overrule its own decisions.  See Evans, slip op., at pgs. 26-27 (collecting cases).  In short, because Hildwin, 490 U.S. 638, is directly on point, and has never been overruled, the Eleventh Circuit stated that it is obligated to follow Hildwin.  See Evans, slip op., pg. 30 (citing Hildwin, 490 U.S. at 640–41) (considering the procedures prescribed by Fla. Stat. § 921.141 (Supp. 1988) and holding that “the Sixth Amendment does not require that the specific findings authorizing the imposition of the sentence of death be made by the jury.”)