Long Evening Waiting for SCOTUS
Last words: “But deliver us from evil. Amen.”
(For a compelling eyewitness account, read this.)
His execution was scheduled for 6 p.m. But 6 o’clock came and went. So did 7. There was an eerie lack of information, at least on Twitter and Google. Social media began reporting that Governor Rick Scott didn’t want to proceed until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Lambrix’s petitions. Then 8 o’clock. And 9.
Then just after 9 p.m., SCOTUS released the four orders denying Lambrix’s applications for stay of execution and his petitions for certiorari and habeas corpus. Justice Thomas had referred each to the full court. No dissent noted. (Orders here, here, here, and here.)
Lambrix was the second inmate executed since Hurst v. Florida. The first was Mark James Asay. Both brutally murdered more than one person. Neither had a unanimous jury recommend the death sentence. By my count, there are 9 others in a similar situation–their juries weren’t unanimous, their convictions were final before Ring v. Arizona, and the Florida Supreme Court has issued a post-Hurst opinion denying relief. [Our unofficial list: Gaskin, Bogle, Rodriguez, Marshall, Oats, Zakrzewski, Zack, Hitchcock, and V. Jones. Be warned: These opinions, as most death penalty cases do, contain vivid depictions of violence.]
Watching SCOTUS October 6 Conference
SCOTUSblog yesterday announced they’re watching the Truehill case going into SCOTUS’s October 6 conference. Unlike Lambrix, Asay, and the others just mentioned, Truehill had a unanimous jury recommend the death penalty. (Fla. Sup. Ct. opinion is here; warning, graphic.)
So why’s this a noteworthy SCOTUS petition? Because the Hurst rule is more nuanced than a simple unanimous/not unanimous test.
In a nutshell, Hurst requires that a unanimous jury make specific findings that the State proved the aggravating factors necessary for a death sentence, and that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors. (I know, legalese. We’ll translate in the series. For now, just trust me.)
Before Hurst, Florida law didn’t require the jury to do this. In fact, a judge could override the jury’s recommendation of life in prison and impose the death penalty him/herself after going through the factors from the bench. (That’s another aspect of Hurst that’ll be discussed in the series.) After Hurst, the Florida Supreme Court has said, in Truehill’s and other cases, that when the jury’s recommendation was 12-0, the fact that they didn’t make specific findings on the aggravating factors doesn’t really matter. It’s harmless error.
But don’t get the impression that the Florida Supreme Court was being flip or defiant about this. SCOTUS specifically left harmless error to the state court in Hurst v. Florida:
This Court normally leaves it to state courts to consider whether an error is harmless, and we see no reason to depart from that pattern here.” (p. 10)
Now Truehill is challenging that in his cert petition. We’ll see whether SCOTUS wants to “depart from that pattern” in Truehill’s case.
If they do, it could create a situation where inmates that had unanimous juries will get new sentencing hearings. Asay and Lambrix, whose juries weren’t unanimous, didn’t. Nor will they ever.