By Letitia Stein
TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - Florida's Supreme Court overturned a new state death penalty law on Friday because it does not require juries to unanimously recommend capital punishment, a ruling with potential implications for ongoing prosecutions and 385 death row inmates.
Executions in Florida, home to the nation's second-largest death row, have been on hold since the U.S. Supreme Court in January struck down the state's death penalty sentencing laws.
Friday's ruling by Florida's high court marked another step towards death sentence recommendations becoming unanimous jury decisions in all U.S. states.
The U.S. Supreme Court's 8-1 ruling invalidated how a judge sentenced Timothy Hurst to death for the 1998 murder of a fried-chicken restaurant manager. It found Florida gave judges powers that juries should wield in determining death eligibility.
In response, the Florida legislature this spring rewrote its death sentencing laws, requiring at least 10 of 12 jurors to support capital punishment, instead of a simple majority.
That law "is unconstitutional because it requires that only ten jurors recommend death as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, twelve-member jury," the state's high court found, adding that the law could not be applied to pending prosecutions.
"It's big," said Marty McClain, a prominent Florida death penalty attorney involved in one of the cases. "There is no constitutional death penalty statute in place until it’s fixed."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office said while it is “reviewing the ruling pending a possible rehearing, juries in current active capital trials must make unanimous decisions in capital cases as to the appropriateness of the death penalty,” a spokesman said in an email.
Florida's incoming House speaker, Republican Richard Corcoran, said his chamber would consider options and called the ruling an "effort to subvert the will of the people as expressed by their elected representatives."
Among U.S. states, only Alabama and Delaware also allowed for non-unanimous jury decisions at the time of the high court's ruling. Delaware's top court in August struck down its death penalty statute. The U.S. Supreme Court has directed a review in Alabama.
"This is significant going forward," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, noting that non-unanimous juries in Florida and Alabama imposed a quarter of U.S. death sentences in recent years.
Florida's Supreme Court vacated Hurst's death sentence and ordered a new penalty phase hearing. It did not address the retroactivity of its findings for other cases.
"There will have to be searching scrutiny in nearly 400 cases," Dunham said.
(Editing by Bernadette Baum and Andrew Hay)