Federal Judge Rules Florida Death Penalty Law Unconstitutional

MIAMI (CBSMiami.com) – A South Florida federal judge has ruled that based on the current sentencing statute, Florida’s death penalty is unconstitutional. The decision came in ruling in a 20-year-old murder case from Indian River County on Florida’s Treasure Coast.

“As the Florida sentencing statue currently operates in practice, the Court finds that the process completed before the imposition of the death penalty is in violation of Ring (v. Arizona) in that the jury’s recommendation is not a factual finding sufficient to satisfy the Constitution,” wrote U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez.

The case revolved around whether or not a jury could recommend the death penalty without giving specific aggravating circumstances for imposing a sentence beyond the maximum penalty for a given crime, in this case, first degree murder.

The judge also found that current Florida law allows a judge to hear evidence after the jury makes its recommendation but before he imposes sentence. The judge found that violated provisions of the US Constitution that require a jury to make the actual decision as to the death sentence, not just a recommendation.

Judge Martinez said in his ruling, “without a separate hearing and a finding that aggravating factors exist and outweigh any mitigating factors, the defendant cannot be sentenced to death. It is that critical finding-the finding of an aggravating factor-which increases the maximum authorized punishment. This requires a jury determination.”

Judge Martinez based his ruling on the Supreme Court case, Ring v. Arizona. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that under the sixth amendment, a jury has to determine if aggravating factors exist for the death penalty.

“Today’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez will, if upheld on appeal, have a dramatic, life and death impact on hundreds of defendants convicted or charged with murder,” said Kendall Coffey, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, who reviewed the ruling at the request of CBS4.

The ruling could impact cases currently in the system, including the controversial Casey Anthony murder case where the death penalty is being sought by the state.

“Not all death row inmates would benefit from such a holding due to technical issues about when prior Supreme Court decisions became effective,” Coffey said. “Many case, though, and certainly pending cases such as Casey Anthony’s, would be impacted if this ruling is followed.”

The case involved a murder-for-hire conspiracy in Indian River County involving Paul Evans, who made the request for a writ of habeas corpus that sparked the ruling, and three other people. Evans was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for his part in the killing of Alan Pfeiffer in 1991.

Evans was convicted after three trials. The first trial ended in a hung jury; the second trial ended in a mistrial, before a third trial finally convicted him. Evans appealed his case through the Florida court system all the way to the state Supreme Court, which declined to overturn the case in 2002.

Still, Judge Martinez found that part of the problem in the appellate process came from the lack of information from the jury.

“There are no specific findings of fact made by the jury. Indeed, the reviewing courts never know what aggravating circumstance which then outweighs any mitigating circumstances,” Judge Martinez wrote. “It is conceivable that some of the jurors did not find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, or that each juror found a different aggravating circumstance, or perhaps all jurors found the existence of an aggravating circumstance but some thought the mitigating circumstances outweighed them.”

“More troubling is that there is nothing in the record to show that Mr. Evans’s jury found the existence of a single aggravating factor,” Judge Martinez wrote. “It cannot be that Mr. Evans’s death sentence is constitutional when there is no evidence to suggest that even a simple majority found the existence of any one aggravating circumstance.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office was caught off-guard when CBSMiami.com requested a comment; but eventually did send the following statement:

“The Attorney General’s Office will be filing for rehearing in the Evans v. Florida Department of Corrections case,” wrote Bondi deputy communications director Jennifer Davis. “The Attorney General’s Office believes that the ruling is contrary to relevant decisions by the Florida Supreme Court, Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court as it applies to the imposition of the death penalty in this particular case.”

But other state agencies have weighed in on the decision.

“While the full impact of this decision make (sic) take time tom come into effect, it is clear that Florida’s death penalty statute is being called into question and all capital litigants should be taking that into consideration,” said Suzanne Keffer, chief assistant of the Florida Capital Collateral Regional Counsel.

The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the decision from Judge Martinez.

“This is yet another sign of the systematic injustices that make up Florida’s death penalty system – which is already plagued by wrongful convictions, racial inequities, the highest rate of exonerations and inadequate legal representation,” said Florida ACLU executive director Howard Simon. “As the foundation of Florida’s death penalty system continues to crumble, it becomes harder to justify.”

  • Carol

    I have never understood the Death Penalty this person took a life and we want to kill him for that so if the state takes this life should they put to death as well?

    I just doesn’t make any sense to me I know there are people tht have done horrible things but 98% of them has had something horrible happen to them and they never had anyone that even cared just a little so what happens if they never got the help they were supposed to get they go out into the world hurting people no knowing why.

    I was raped from the age of twelve (12) through the age of twenty-one (21) nonstop and I developed such a horrible temper that I lost many friends and many good jobs because of it and my first husband and almost my second husband now we are married over thirty (30) years but I got help and realized why I was doing what I was doing and as the person that was helping me said I was the rape and the rape was me there was no separating it until I got help and realized the damage the rape did to me.

    A lot of people walk around like I did and still do to a certain degree but now I know how to handle my temper and when it starts I can stop it but it takes a lot of strength sometimes to keep it down but I do because I know why I am so mad and it has nothing to do what is happening at the time I am so mad.

    To me putting someone to death doesn’t bring back the person you killed but that is the way I feel.

    • sumday

      your statement is like saying I never understood why we kill rabid animals. I’d also like to point out the undeniable fact that locked in a small cell for 23hr a day for your entire life is cruel and unusual punishment- but death is the most natural thing every living animal will experience. If one person kills another and is sentenced to death the “state” is not guilty of his death, but is acting on behalf of the dead victim! Not imposing the DP is the stupidest solution of all. For then you are requiring every citizen to pay to house, feed, and care for this person for life- what benefit to society is it to throw money away at holding a person that we never expect or want back in society again? Not only does holding the killer for life cost us millions with no benefit, but during that whole time in jail they are only influencing other criminals in a negative manor who will then be getting out and coming back to society. So your suggestion of not using the DP actually reads- we should all pay money to give a killer the privilege of life that he took from another and give them the opportunity to influence other criminals in jail. I mean if you take a rotten apple (the killer) and place it next to a bad apple (a robber) does that bad apple get better or worse? It is necessary to impose the DP for the sake of society for the exact same logic that we put down rabid animals (we don’t house the rabid animal and wait for it to die naturally bc it will infect other animals).

  • russell

    Federal judges are opposed to the death penalty in principle and will find one convoluted reason or another not to impose it on murderers. On the other hand, you can’t kill enough babies to please them.

    • sumday

      nice comment. Personally I think they don’t impose the DP for money reasons- every prisoner cost 20-30K/yr if we killed them the prison system would lose that money, but if we keep them alive well that killer just made that prison a million dollars if he lives there 30-40yrs. So why would you want to kill someone who is going to make you money? I think all judges who are opposed to the DP should be required to keep and care for a rabid animal as a pet in their house bc that is essentially what they are requiring society to do.

    • cjm71

      I second the motion made by ca!

    • David Lochhead

      The federal judges are the people tasked with making sure that the laws are constitutional so unless you are a judge you only get to vote for the legislature that makes the rules that the judges must follow. This is not a personal opinion of the judge as his ruling has yet to be found in error , if ever. So yes like Ca said , you are an idiot.

      • jessa2182

        to xo: Asking the court to follow the law in sentencing is not egotistical it is the reason we have judiciary review and appeals. He is not saying abolish the death penalty, but saying if you are going to apply, do so within the confines of the current law.

        If you don’t like the law then petition your legislature to get it fixed, but don’t hate the judge for enforcing what the law prescribes…

      • sumday

        at xoxoxoxoxo could not agree with you more.

      • xoxoxoxxo

        i think you three are idiots….and most definitely naive…..not one of you mentioned if you are for or against the death penalty?? this is one egotistical judge attempting to make a name for himself….period….wonderful, let murderers keep murdering and continue to subsidize their lives behind bars….fantastic…..seemd like this ruling is great for criminals and criminals only….how in the world does this ruling benefit society?? and deter criminals?? why don’t you get back to me on that one???

  • Hans Kristen

    If this judge is so much opposed to the dead penalty for real Killers, have him and the other judges who oppose the dead penalty for this killers take care of the money when you put them for 30 years in jail!!!

    • Nunya Biz

      It can be repeatedly shown, ad nauseum, to people like you that it costs way more to sentence the death penalty than it does to sentence life without parole. Yet you will continue to argue against the death penalty on the basis of cost. I am not against the death penalty, but I am very much againsts stupidity.

      • sumday

        that is only bc of the bureaucracy around it- it doesn’t cost more for the DP than life with no parole! the cost of appeals and the time it takes to carry out is what cost the most not actually carrying it out, but that should not be the case! Life without parole means we will spend even more for his medical cost as they get older. speaking of stupidity you neglect to acknowledge that keeping a person locked up for life only lets them influence other criminals locked up with them. With a life sentence there is no reason to change so you spend your whole life being “bad and violent” in jail and just what effect do you think that has on the other prisoners who serve time next to these people and will be coming back to society do to them? Do you think spending a few yrs next to a guy with a life sentence is going to make that person a better man when they get out? The fact is lifers influence other prisoners to being even more bad- ever noticed the 80-90% return rate of criminals? Imposing the DP (even if it cost more) helps slow down the spread of violent influence among other prisoners imo.

      • Nunya Biz

        I meant argue “for” the death penalty, not against it.

  • sumday

    death is natural- every living being dies. Are you saying natural things are evil? bc I’d say locked in a small cage 23hr/day for your entire life is pretty evil, but I have some trouble thinking something that every single human will experience (death) is evil- painful to the living maybe but certainly not evil.

  • Grim Reaper

    Not that I wish anything bad but what if a member of the Judge’s Family is murdered like one of mine was…will he change his tune

  • D. Will

    I don’t have a problem with the DP. The problem for many is the actual trial execution of the judicial system. Can we entrust Prosecutors to bring to trial the actual defendant who committed the murder? If we can clearly and equitably do this single most important part of death sentencing, then we are closer to the bull’s eye than at any other time in history. The dark clouds of so many innocently convicted citizens leave a horrific taste in the average person’s mouth. The problem with this particular DP case is the judge clearly has to be asked was the defendant convicted by the rules set out prior to the trial beginning or was the rules of court adopted as the trial progressed? Though, I do agree that when the jury reached its guilty verdict why did the judge in the lower court need to impose his will in the case. The judge only had to ensure after the jury finding that everything was just and proper, and signed off on the verdict. The implication is that the jury is not qualified to make a life or death decision.

  • Robert

    Racial inequalities ey? Could it be because some races commit more crimes than other? Naaaaaahhhh

  • jam8canpops

    The death penalty is inherently evil.So many crooked cops and DAs make a good case to abolish it.Not to mention the cost of trying a death penalty case and it’s imposition.States can ill afford it.It is cheaper to keep the person in jail for life,period.

  • Daryl Hoffmann

    I feel the Sopreme Courts have all the Fax’s,The People have a hundred picture’s in mind,I fell the I for an I and Tooth for a Tooth is not so good of a Policy to have,I up hold the chage the Fedral Supreme Court has mad,I feel to many people real just want to see or hear that someone died by State Death Sentences,That it really makes the feel good,This is How sick people are that kill.We have to many lagal murder’s,That set at Home And Judge,Thay did not do it but the State did,That makes them feel GOOD,Only the war do we trade dead bodies for dead bodties,It is good to see this get out of the court’s,You have the victom and the victomiser,Life and time work’s the wrong out,In the best Healthest Way’s.???????????????????

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