A United States District Court Judge for the Southern District of Florida, Judge Jose Martinez, recently granted a 2254 petition for writ of habeas corpus in Evans v. McNeil, 08-14402-CIV-JEM, concluding that Florida’s death penalty procedure violates the United States Supreme Court case of Ring v. Arizona. In Ring, the Court struck down Arizona’s death penalty scheme because jurors were not required to agree on aggravating factors, which violated the Sixth Amendment. In Florida, the death penalty is handed down in a 2 step process. First, the jury may recommend the death penalty if 6 of the 12 jurors agree. (I am not the only attorney to recognize how ironic it is that to be convicted of even a misdemeanor crime, the jury verdict must be unanimous, but to be sentenced to death, only 6 of the 12 must agree). In the second step, after the jury makes its recommendation, the Judge conducts a sentencing hearing where he or she uses the jury recommendation in reaching the actual sentencing decision. According to Judge Martinez’s opinion, the Florida scheme violates Ring because (1) the jury is not required to unanimously agree on the factors in support of the death penalty; (2) the jury never makes any specific findings of fact in support of their recommendation; and, (3) in the sentencing phase, the Judge takes evidence alone, without a jury, and neither the defendant, nor any reviewing court, has any way of knowing whether the Judge imposed the death penalty based on the same, or different factors, than were relied on by the jury. According to Judge Martinez, such a process cannot be reconciled with Ring.
No doubt, Judge Martinez’s Order will be appealed, and criminal lawyers across the State will be watching. A flurry of appeals will likely be filed by death row inmates themselves. Perhaps the Florida Legislature could just save everyone some time and effort, and create a new scheme to cure the constitutional deficiencies. Somehow, I suspect that won’t happen. The Florida Supreme Court already asked the Legislature to fix the sentencing scheme, and the Legislature failed to act. Even if the Legislature did act, I doubt they could pass anything. If Florida’s legislators cannot even agree on simple legislation, how could anyone expect them to agree on something as important as the death penalty?