By: Luis A. Garcia Jr., J.D. Candidate, May 2018, St. Thomas University School of Law.

In 2016, the United States Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida held Florida’s sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because it gave more power to the judges rather than the juries.[1] “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”[2] This meant that inmates that were sentenced to death under Florida’s old scheme would be allowed to appeal their sentence so long as it was after June 24, 2002.[3] Everything that was prior to June 24, 2002 would be considered final.[4] The Florida Supreme Court would apply the harmless error analysis for each case that was decided after June 24, 2002 under the old death sentencing scheme. However, the court seems to be denying several appeals.

The Hurst ruling affected almost 200 death row inmates in Florida.[5]  This caused the Florida Supreme Court to send numerous cases back down for resentencing. putting “financial and workload pressure on prosecutors, public defenders and courts.”[6] Recently, the Florida Supreme Court has rejected 10 death row inmates’ appeals. These inmates were appealing the death sentence because it was the same situation that occurred in Hurst where the jury did unanimously recommend a death sentence, instead the judge determined that it was either a suitable sentence or that their sentencing was final.[7] Death Row inmate Eric Scott Branch, whom was convicted of murdering a University of West Florida student, filed a request for stay of execution that was scheduled for February 22, 2018.[8]  His argument was also based on Hurst because his sentence was not recommended by a unanimous jury either.  However, his request was denied nonetheless.

These recent rejections are likely to be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which will quickly fill up their dockets.[9] It has been about a year and a half since the Hurst decision.  The holding has not only affected prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the lower courts because of the resentencing orders, but also the United States Supreme Court once the death row inmates begin to appeal their sentencing because they do not comply with Hurst.

[1] See Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616 (2016) (holding that Florida’s death penalty scheme gives too much power to judges instead of the juries).

[2] See id.

[3] See Florida Supreme Court Ruthlessly Recommending Death, 10 Times a Day, SunSentinel, (Jan. 30, 2018), http://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/editorials/fl-op-editorial-florida-death-penalty-20180130-story.html (stating that the Florida Supreme Court did not apply the Hurst decision to inmates prior to June 24, 2002).

[4] See id.

[5] Dana Kam, Florida Death Penalty Cases Cause Strains for Legal System, Daily Business Review, (Jan. 25, 2018), https://www.law.com/dailybusinessreview/sites/dailybusinessreview/2018/01/25/florida-death-penalty-cases-cause-strains-for-legal-system/ (explaining the pressures felt from the recent United States Supreme Court decision).

[6] See id.

[7] See Florida Supreme Court Rejects 10 Death Row appeals at Same Time, Orlando Sentinel, (Jan. 22, 2018), http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/politics/political-pulse/os-10-death-row-appeals-rejected-20180122-story.html (stating that several inmates have been denied a stay of execution because they were sentenced to death prior to June 24, 2002).

[8] Florida Supreme Court Rejects Appeal from Death Row Inmate, My Panhandle, (Feb. 6, 2018), http://www.mypanhandle.com/news/florida-supreme-court-rejects-appeal-from-death-row-inmate/955156672 (stating that the United States Supreme Court will be inundated with appeals in a few months).

[9]See id.