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Supreme Court hears arguments on overturning death sentences

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The Florida Supreme Court weighed arguments on whether the state will execute a convicted murderer or overturn his death sentence on Thursday.

Timothy Hurst‘s legal counsel argued errors in the sentencing process should invalidate his sentence in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court court ruling that briefly invalidated Florida’s death penalty regime.

Attorneys for the state, on the other hand, said procedural problems — including too much deference to judges rather than juries and relatively low jury vote thresholds for death sentences — were not serious enough to grant Hurst a lighter sentence.

Hurst’s life hangs in the balance, as do nearly 400 other death row convicts whose sentences could also be thrown out, depending on the state justices’ ruling in his case. David Davis, Hurst’s attorney, was careful to delimit his arguments to the facts of his client’s case alone, however.

Hurst was convicted in the 1998 murder of the manager of a Popeye’s restaurant in Pensacola where he worked as a 19-year-old. Court findings that Hurst had an IQ of 69 and other possible mitigating factors were not enough to prevent a jury from voting for a death sentence by a 7-5 vote, a lower standard than passes muster in most states.

A new law mandates at least 10 out of 12 jurors must vote to sentence a defendant to death. It also directs that a judge may not circumvent their will by imposing death against their recommendation. Under those circumstances, Hurst may well have gotten only life in prison, Davis argued.

Davis also cited a statute that says if the death penalty is overturned all death sentences should be commuted. But Assistant Attorney General Carine Mitz said the statute does not apply since the January case that briefly derailed the state’s capital punishment system only applied to the sentencing process, not the death penalty itself.

Justice Barbara Pariente and Justice Peggy Quince, both appointed by Democrats, peppered Mitz with questions over whether each aggravating factor — usually required for a penalty of death — must be explicitly affirmed by a jury and must outweigh any mitigating factors, like Hurst’s low IQ and mental disorders stemming from a traumatic injury.

Mitz said under the January Supreme Court opinion and a subsequent case, Kansas v. Carr, mitigation and weighing factors are not technically facts of the case, and so fall under a lower level of scrutiny than Hurst’s counsel prescribed.

Also at issue were potential problems with the new statute passed by the Legislature this past Session that patched up the state’s death penalty regime, but may itself later be invalidated, according to Davis.

Davis said unanimous jury verdicts in the sentencing phase, common in other states, were a matter of time, eventually tossing out Florida’s new “10 out of 12” rule for death sentences.

“Evolving standards are it should be unanimous,” said Davis. “If they approve the current statute then we are going to postpone the inevitable for 10-15 years until the U.S. Supreme Court takes another Hurst case.”

The justices did not immediately make a ruling on the case.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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