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Florida Supreme Court Issues Death Penalty Rulings

by Ed Lyon

The final two weeks of 2018 were extremely busy for Florida’s Supreme Court with respect to capital punishment jurisprudence.

Florida codefendants Gerald Murray and Steven Taylor were convicted in separate trials for capital murder and sentenced to die by nonunanimous jury verdicts in the 1990s. Taylor’s case became final in 1994, but Murray won three new trials, each ending in a guilty judgment and death sentence, the last by an 11-1 jury verdict.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court negated Florida’s sentencing procedures under which Murray and Taylor were tried, finding that capital defendants had a right to have a jury determine all of the facts exposing them to a death sentence, rather than a judge making the final decision. See: Hurst v. Florida, 136 S.Ct. 616 (2016) [PLN, Feb. 2016, p.22]. Subsequent to that ruling, Florida’s Supreme Court held that a Sixth Amendment violation occurred in capital cases where a juror had not voted for a death sentence that was imposed, and such a violation could never be harmless error. Any death penalty assessed under such circumstances violated the state constitution.

Allowing for retroactive application of that decision, the Florida Supreme Court set a cut-off date for cases that became final after June 2002 – the date of the U.S. Supreme Court’s first ruling that announced jury fact-finding to be a Sixth Amendment right in the penalty phase of capital trials. That meant Murray’s case, which became final after his fourth trial in 2009, was eligible for relief from his death sentence – but not his codefendant, Taylor.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente blasted the cut-off deadline, especially in Murray and Taylor’s cases, calling it “the textbook example of the ‘unintended arbitrariness’” in one of her prior dissents and stating, “Taylor and Murray were both convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death after nonunanimous jury recommendations for death.... Yet only one will receive a new death penalty phase. Clearly, the Court’s line-drawing for the retroactivity of Hurst creates unconstitutional results for defendants like Taylor.” See: State v. Murray, 262 So.3d 26 (Fla. 2018); 2018 Fla. LEXIS 2590.

In other rulings in December 2018, the Florida Supreme Court reversed a trial court’s decision regarding a defendant’s intellectual disability in a capital case, ordering reconsideration “using contemporary clinical diagnostic standards.” It also affirmed another lower court’s order for “limited DNA testing” in a death penalty case. 


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Related legal case

State v. Murray