Numbers aren’t everything, but they do tell a story. Today we’ll crunch the numbers on the Florida Supreme Court’s death penalty cases since October 2016 in our series on Hurst v. Florida.
Nowadays, few U.S. Supreme Court cases turn states upside-down. And from a macro view, Hurst v. Florida didn’t rock the nation like some of the famous criminal procedure cases from yesteryear.
Even in Florida, Hurst only affected a small class of cases: first-degree murder convictions with a death sentence. But in terms of the Florida Supreme Court’s workload, Hurst was a watershed case. And the Florida Supreme Court’s opinion on remand (a/k/a Hurst II) was just as important. That opinion was released October 14, 2016.
Since then, by our count, the Florida Supreme Court’s released 10 death penalty opinions decided on grounds other than Hurst–6 reversals and 4 affirmances.
But there have been 86(!) opinions dealing with Hurst (including Hurst II). In less than a year.
Of the 86, the court vacated death sentences in 56 cases because the jury wasn’t unanimous. Those were sent back to the trial court for a new penalty phase with a new jury.
On the other hand, 30 opinions kept the death sentence intact. The 30 fall into three general categories: there was a unanimous jury (14), the defendant waived a sentencing jury (3), and the sentence was final before June 24, 2002 (i.e., when SCOTUS decided Ring v. Arizona), therefore, Hurst doesn’t apply (13). In the last category, four are opinions in Mark James Asay (2) and Cary Michael Lambrix’s (2) cases. Both have been executed.
We can break the pre-Ring cases down even further. Aside from Asay and Lambrix’s cases, 6 had non-unanimous juries, while only one was unanimous. In two cases, it’s unclear what the jury vote was. In one of those cases, Oats, it’s unknown because the verdict form only indicated whether a majority agreed to the sentence. Oats is also unique because he raised the argument that Hurst requires a jury to find mental disability under Hall (perhaps the second-most significant death penalty case from SCOTUS to Florida behind Hurst) [also, did Hall & Oates cross anybody’s mind when working on these cases?].
In the other case, the court didn’t mention the jury tally when they briefly discussed Hurst. Nor did they in 2012, 2007, or 2003. But in 1995 on direct appeal (unavailable on Florida Supreme Court website), they mentioned it was 10-2. That brings our non-unanimous, pre-Ring cases to 7.
Perhaps the most interesting of the non-unanimous, pre-Ring group: the two “judicial override” cases, Marshall and Zakrzewski. Marshall’s jury recommended life in prison. The judge sentenced him to death. This prompted a dissent from Chief Justice Labarga, who’s typically in the majority in Hurst cases. As for Zakrzewski, the jury recommended the death penalty for murdering his wife and son (voting 7-5 each), and life in prison for murdering his daughter. The judge gave him the death penalty for all three.
Where Hannon’s Case Fits in Hurst
On Friday, Governor Rick Scott signed the death warrant for Patrick C. Hannon. The Florida Supreme Court hasn’t released a post-Hurst opinion in Hannon’s case. But here’s where he stands from a Hurst perspective–he had a unanimous jury and his sentence was final in the 1990s. So Hannon would join Juan David Rodriguez as a pre-Ring unanimous jury case. That means it’s unlikely he’ll get a new sentencing hearing under Hurst for his two first-degree murder convictions.