Florida Supreme Court Building in Tallahassee, Fla. Photo: Bruin79

In the next chapter of Florida’s ongoing death penalty narrative, a pair of decisions handed down by the state’s Supreme Court on December 22 entitle about 200 death row prisoners to new sentencing hearings, while excluding another 150 who may have been unconstitutionally sentenced to death.

The rulings in the cases Asey v. State and Mosley v. State finally set a path forward for the Florida courts, establishing that death row prisoners whose unconstitutional death sentences became "final" in or after 2002 will get re-sentencing, but that relief is denied to prisoners with similar circumstances if sentencing had become final prior to 2002, the year of Ring v. Arizona.

The landmark 2002 Ring v. Arizona case made clear that a jury must find every and all facts that are a prerequisite of a death penalty sentence, including but not limited to aggravating circumstances, mitigating circumstances and the weight of each. This case served as the basis for Hurst v. Florida (January 2016), in which the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida’s capital sentencing scheme to be in violation of the Sixth Amendment if there was not a unanimous finding by jurors that aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances.

In the 1991 case of Mark James Asey, a jury recommended death by a 9-3 vote. While the 2016 ruling acknowledged that the non-unanimous sentencing was indeed unconstitutional, the court nevertheless denied Asay relief since his original sentence became final before Ring. Whereas, John Franklin Mosley—who was sentenced to death in 2009 when the trial judge overrode the jury's 8-4 recommendation of a life sentence—was granted a new sentencing hearing.

“Defendants who were sentenced to death under Florida’s former, unconstitutional capital sentencing scheme after Ring should not suffer due to the United States Supreme Court’s fourteen-year delay in applying Ring to Florida,” part of the ruling in Mosley v. State reads.

But, as the Death Penalty Information Center explains, the court limited its holding only to those cases in which the constitutional violation was harmless. In order to be harmless, the court said "it must be clear beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury would have unanimously found all facts necessary to impose death and that death was the appropriate sentence."

Two justices dissented in Asay. Justice Pariente, who dissented in part, said she would apply the constitutional protections of Hurst to all prisoners facing a death sentence, regardless of timing. In his dissention, Justice Perry ended up questioning the legality of the death sentence as a whole in the state of Florida.

“I cannot agree with the majority’s decision to limit the retroactive application of Hurst v. Florida to those cases that were not final when the United States Supreme Court decided Ring. In my opinion, the line drawn by the majority is arbitrary and cannot withstand scrutiny under the Eighth Amendment because it creates an arbitrary application of law to two groups of similarly situated persons. Coupled with Florida’s troubled history in applying the death penalty in a discriminatory manner, I believe that such an application is unconstitutional,” he wrote.

In Mosley v. State, Perry both concurred and dissented. He concurred that Mosley’s death sentence should be vacated, reaffirming his belief that Hurst should be applied to all death row prisoners. But he dissenting in regards to Mosley’s resentencing, pointing to a legislature that says the court should automatically sentence life imprisonment to an inmate whose death penalty sentence is ruled unconstitutional.

Previous news coverage: Florida Death Penalty Ruling Means Hundreds Could be Re-sentenced