Florida Supreme Court strikes blow to death row inmates

| August 12, 2017 |
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Florida's death chamber
Florida's death chamber
WEST PALM BEACH -- In a ruling that could prevent as many as 100 condemned inmates from seeking life sentences, the Florida Supreme Court this week rejected arguments that constitutional flaws with the state’s death penalty should benefit all 362 inmates on death row.

The much anticipated ruling strikes a blow to efforts to block the scheduled Aug. 24 execution of Mark James Asay for the 1987 shooting deaths of two Jacksonville men. It also will make it more difficult for all but one of seven men on death row for decades-old Palm Beach County murders to win life sentences as a result of the legal turmoil roiling the state’s death penalty.

While acknowledging that Asay and others may have other grounds to appeal their death sentences, the ruling is both far-reaching and troubling, said Robert Dunham, a lawyer and executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.

“Now what you have is a situation in which for about 200 cases there may be costly resentencings and for another significant number of cases there are going to be unconstitutional executions,” Dunham said.

The issue was whether all death row inmates should benefit from rulings by the U.S. and Florida supreme courts that struck down the state’s death penalty as unconstitutional because it didn’t require that juries unanimously agree that a defendant should be executed.

In deciding a case involving the 1976 strangulation death of a 13-year-old Orlando-area girl, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday stuck by its previous decisions that only those sentenced after June 24, 2002, could seek new sentencing hearings.

With only Justice Barbara Pariente dissenting, the state high court rejected arguments that the cut-off date was arbitrary. That is the date the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case, Ring v. Arizona. Since then, Florida judges have been on notice its sentencing scheme was flawed, the court previously ruled.

In her dissent, Pariente said the cut-off date violates the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment. All inmates who were sentenced to death by split juries should be resentenced, she argued.

“Reliability is the linchpin of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, and a death sentence imposed without a unanimous jury verdict for death is inherently unreliable,” she wrote.

The case, involving 61-year-old James Earnest Hitchcock, who was sentenced to death on the basis of a 10-2 jury recommendation for raping and killing his brother’s daughter, was closely watched by death penalty opponents because the high court signaled it might reverse course. It stayed the cases of 77 inmates who also were arguing that all inmates should be able to seek new sentencing hearings. Dunham estimated roughly 20 other inmates would be impacted.

An attorney for Leroy Pooler, who is on death row for the 1995 slaying of his ex-girlfriend in West Palm Beach, mentioned Hitchcock’s case in July when she appealed to Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath to grant Pooler a new sentencing hearing. Attorney Linda McDermott also is arguing that it would be unconstitutional to execute Pooler because he is mentally disabled.

Like all but two other inmates sentenced to death for Palm Beach County murders, Pooler’s conviction became final before Ring was decided and therefore would not be entitled to a new sentencing hearing as a result of the Hitchcock ruling.

Carlton Francis, who was sentenced to death for the 1997 stabbing deaths of 66-year-old twin sisters Claire Brunt and Bernice Flegel in their West Palm Beach home, could win a new sentencing hearing because his conviction became final after July 2002.

Double-murderer Duane Owen could escape one death sentence but not another under the ruling.

His conviction for the 1984 bludgeoning death of single mother Georgianna Worden became final before Ring. However, he could win a new sentencing hearing for the rape and fatal stabbing of 14-year-old babysitter Karen Slattery months earlier. That conviction became final six months after Ring was decided.

Efforts by Noberto Pietri to escape death row for fatally shooting West Palm Beach motorcycle officer Brian Chappell in 1988 were rejected by a Palm Beach County judge in March. Pietri’s conviction became final before Ring.

The various scenarios underscore how arbitrary the system has become, Dunham said.

“The clearest and fairest solution would be not to execute people who were unconstitutionally sentenced to death,” he said.

Source: Palm Beach Post, Jane Musgrave, August 11, 2017

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