State Supreme Court could decide fate of all death row inmates

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Capitol News Service) – Nearly 400 prisoners on Death Row anxiously await to see if their death sentences will stand.

The case that forced Florida’s death penalty system to be ruled unconstitutional was back before the state’s high court Thursday.

Timothy Lee Hurst was recommended death 7-5 by a jury for the 1998 murder of his manager at Popeye’s in Pensacola.

His case caused the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme – which only called for jury recommendations and gave final authority to a judge.

Hurst’s attorneys were back in front of state Supreme Court justices Thursday saying his death sentence needed to be converted to life imprisonment.

“In the event the death penalty in a capital felony is held to be unconstitutional by this court or the U.S. Supreme Court, the court shall sentence such person to life imprisonment. Very clear,” said David Davis, Hurst’s attorney.

Attorney’s for the state argued that the death penalty itself was never declared unconstitutional – only the sentencing scheme.

“It doesn’t say the death penalty statute, it doesn’t say “Florida’s death penalty statute” it simply says the death penalty,” said Assistant Attorney General Carine Mitz.

The Florida legislature since voted to require a simple majority of a minimum 10 jurors recommending death in order to carry out capital punishment. Justices weren’t sure that would fix the situation.

“The worst thing would be, if we don’t agree with the defendant, would be to start down the path of a new statue that has unconstitutional infirmities,” said Justice Barbara Pariente.

The case could have a far-reaching impact on 390 death row inmates, but Hurst’s lawyer made clear to the court he was only making a case for his client.

Attorney General Pam Bondi maintains that only inmates who have not yet had their direct appeals heard by the court are eligible for life without parole.

A coalition of former state Supreme Court justices and lawyers have urged the Florida Supreme Court to convert all sentences to life imprisonment in the wake of the federal ruling.

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