Florida Criminal Appeals Attorney Law

Appellate Law, Criminal Defense and Appeals and Post Conviction Relief in Florida Courts, Federal District Courts and the 11th Circuit

Tag: Ring v. Arizona

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

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.”)

Is Florida’s Death Penalty Unconstitutional? The Court says YES in Evans v. McNeil, 08-14402-CIV-JEM

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?

To read more about this topic, see the articles in the Palm Beach Post, the Sun Sentinel, and the Southern District of Florida Blog.

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