FLORIDA (USA): MIAMI FEDERAL JUDGE RULES DEATH PENALTY UNCONSTITUTIONAL
June 22, 2011: A Miami federal judge ruled that the way Florida courts mete out the death penalty is unconstitutional because juries â not judges â should be the ones to spell out which details about the crime justify execution.
U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez ordered that Paul H. Evans, convicted in a 1991 murder-for-hire case in Vero Beach, must receive a new sentencing hearing.
The ruling, likely to be argued in appellate courts for years, does not strike down Floridaâs capital-punishment law. But it could force lawmakers to change the statute, and could give recent convicts new avenues for appeal, legal experts say.
âIf the case survives appeals, the Florida Legislature is going to have to modify the law to allow jurors to explain why someone deserves the death penalty,â said Miami attorney Terry Lenamon, founder of the Florida Capital Resource Center, a support group for death-penalty defense cases.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, through a spokeswoman, said Wednesday that her office would request a rehearing and appeal the decision.
Legal scholars say Martinezâs ruling marks the first time a Florida judge has overturned a death sentence under the U.S. Supreme Court case Ring v. Arizona. In that 2002 ruling, the court held that defendants are entitled to have juries decide on whether any âaggravating factorsâ in a crime justify enhanced punishment.
Evans was convicted in the 1991 trailer park murder of Alan Pfeiffer. Jurors voted 9-3 for the death penalty in February 1999. The trial judge imposed death, finding that Evans committed the crime for âpecuniary gainâ and the murder was âcommitted in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner.â
Whether any convicts will be resentenced because of Martinezâs ruling remains to be seen, but the opinion has reignited debate in the Florida legal community over the juryâs role in deciding on the death penalty.
Florida is one of the few states that allow juries to issue death penalty recommendations that are not unanimous. Here, 12-person juries recommend by majority vote whether someone convicted of first-degree murder should be executed. But state jurors do not have to check off on an instruction sheet which reasons contributed to their decision, as jurors are required to do in the rare death penalty case in federal court.
Trial judges in Floridaâs state courts have authority to override jury recommendations, although in death penalty cases, they rarely do.
Judge Martinez, in the ruling said there was no way to know if all nine of the jurors in Evansâ case who voted for death were swayed by the same aggravating factors as the judge. He conceded that jury unanimity may not be constitutionally necessary, but wrote: ââŚ It cannot be that Mr. Evansâ death sentence is constitutional when there is no evidence to suggest that even a simple majority found the existence of any one aggravating circumstance.â (Sources: miamiherald.com, 22/06/2011)