What's Next for Florida's Death Row?

The state supreme court weighs the inmates’ fate after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down their sentencing procedures.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

Five months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death-penalty statute, the state’s supreme court heard arguments Thursday on the fate of its death-row inmates.

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision in the case, Hurst v. Florida, could either keep almost 400 inmates on death row, make them eligible for resentencing, or reduce their sentences to life imprisonment en masse. The Sunshine State has the second-largest death row in the nation, behind only California.

The Orlando Sentinel has more:

On Thursday, an attorney for Hurst asked the court to spare his client. David A. Davis cited a 1972 Florida law that says if the death penalty is found to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, every Florida inmate with a death sentence must have it commuted to life.

"This court – I hate to say it's an easy job, but it's a straightforward one," Davis said.

Earlier in the week some of the state's most powerful attorneys, including three former Florida Supreme Court justices, cited the same law when filing paperwork with the Florida Supreme Court, asking it to commute the sentences of all 390 inmates on death row to life in prison.

But Assistant Florida Attorney General Carine Mitz argued that the law does not apply because only a portion of the state's sentencing statute was found to be invalid.

The case centered on Timothy Hurst, who received a death sentence in 2000 for the 1998 murder of his coworker, Cynthia Lee Harrison. Hurst was sentenced under Florida’s unorthodox method of death-penalty sentencing in which juries merely render an “advisory sentence,” without detailing aggravating or mitigating circumstances, and the judge alone determines life or death.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death-penalty statute in an 8-1 ruling in Hurst’s case. “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” Florida passed a new statute in March.

The new statute does not affect those sentenced under the old statute, including Hurst. Instead, his fate—and the fate of 389 other inmates on death row—will be determined by the justices’ forthcoming ruling. A decision is expected later this year.