Florida high court again reverses itself on death penalty
May 22, 2020
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday reversed its previous ruling allowing any death row inmate to challenge a sentence based on a higher standard for determining whether they are intellectually disabled.
The decision marked the second time this year that the new-look court overturned one of its own decisions on the death penalty.
The court reversed a previous decision that allowed retroactively applying a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said Florida couldn’t base the determination of a condemned prisoners intellectual disability strictly on an IQ test because there is a margin of error.
But Thursday’s 4-1 Florida ruling said that the state high court previously made the mistake of making the issue retroactive, and thus Harry Phillips can’t make the case that his death sentence should be converted to life because he is intellectually disabled.
Phillips was sentenced to death for the 1982 murder of parole supervisor Bjorn Thomas Svenson in Miami. A prior claim that he was intellectually disabled was denied, but that was when Florida law set an IQ of 70 or below as the definition of intellectually disabled.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the intellectually disabled violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But until the 2014 ruling, it let states decide how to determine if condemned prisoners were disabled.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a Florida case in 2014 that because of a margin of error of five points, condemned individuals with IQ scores up to 75 points could challenge a death sentence using other factors to determine their disability.
In 2016, the state Supreme Court allowed a condemned prisoner to get a new sentencing hearing based on the U.S. Supreme Court decision. Now, the court says that was a mistake because cases decided before the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court shouldn’t be retroactive. The decision drew a sharp rebuke from Florida Justice Jorge Labarga.
“Yet again, this Court has removed an important safeguard in maintaining the integrity of Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence,” Labarga wrote in his dissenting opinion. “The result is an increased risk that certain individuals may be executed, even if they are intellectually disabled.”
The Florida Supreme Court also reversed itself in January with a ruling saying it was wrong when it said a jury must be unanimous in deciding a convicted murderer should be sentenced to death. It was dramatic legal reversal potentially affecting dozens of death row cases.
The composition of the Florida high court has gone from leaning liberal to firmly conservative. Three liberal justices on the seven-member court were forced to retire because of age limits on the same day Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis took office in January 2019. That gave DeSantis the opportunity to appoint three conservative judges. Two of those justices have since been appointed to a federal appeals court and were not part of Thursday’s 4-1 decision.