CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Friday, October 4, 2013

Ryan on a Sixth Amendment Challenge to Florida's Capital Sentencing Statute

Brendan Ryan has posted The Evans Case: A Sixth Amendment Challenge to Florida's Capital Sentencing Statute (University of Miami Law Review, Vol. 67, No. 4, 2013) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

On June 20, 2011, Judge Jose Martinez of the Southern District of Florida delivered his opinion on Paul Evans’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Evans was sentenced to death in 1999 for the 1991 murder of Alan Pfeiffer in Indian River County, Florida. Having exhausted his direct and collateral appeals in state court, Evans’s last hope was federal court, where he had made seventeen claims for relief. In his order, Judge Martinez denied sixteen of Evans’s claims, but granted Evans’s seventeenth claim, ruling that Florida’s capital sentencing statute violates the Sixth Amendment’s jury trial guarantee. In so doing, Judge Martinez unleashed a tremor along a jurisprudential fault line that has been threatening Florida’s death penalty statute since the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Ring v. Arizona. 

The reaction to the decision was predictable. Prosecutors protested, claiming that the judge was “so far out on the limb, you can hear the branch crack.” Public defenders cheered, noting that Florida’s “highly convoluted” scheme for applying the death penalty “is squarely at odds with Ring.” Death penalty opponents rejoiced, believing that the decision would “likely spark a flurry of appeals from Death Row inmates.” Right-wing bloggers bristled, decrying the “[j]udicial activism” that has “left Paul Evans living comfortably in jail, and Alan Pfeiffer calling for justice from the grave.” Florida’s Attorney General vowed to appeal the ruling.

An appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals came as promised, and the court published its ruling on October 23, 2012. In a unanimous opinion authored by Judge Edward Carnes, the court reversed the district court’s grant of Evans’s habeas corpus petition. In offering “Evans a spoonful of Shakespeare and a dash of Learned Hand,” Judge Carnes noted that the Supreme Court has “repeatedly instruct[ed] lower courts that when one of its earlier decisions with direct application to a case appears to rest on reasons rejected in a more recent line of decisions, we must follow the directly applicable decision and leave to the high Court the prerogative of overruling its own decisions.” The more recent line of cases that Judge Carnes referred to began with Ring, but he remarked that a string of pre-Ring cases specifically upheld “the advisory jury verdict and judicial sentencing component of Florida’s capital punishment statute,” and thus should be followed. Therefore, with no shortage of literary pizzazz, Judge Carnes set the stage for a Supreme Court appeal.

On March 18, 2013, Evans petitioned for a writ of certiorari. Paul M. Smith, one of the country’s leading appellate litigators, signed the petition as Evans’s counsel of record. Under Rule 15 of the Rules of the Supreme Court, a brief in opposition to a petition for writ of certiorari is mandatory in capital cases. Florida filed its brief in opposition on April 18, 2013. An amici curiae brief in support of Evans was also filed on April 18, and Evans filed his reply brief shortly thereafter. However, on May 20, 2013, the Supreme Court denied Evans’s petition. Florida’s capital sentencing statute had survived.

This article will discuss the Sixth Amendment concerns in Florida’s capital sentencing statute that were at issue in Evans. The first section of the comment will review the jurisprudential background of Florida’s death penalty scheme. This section will discuss the development of the modern Florida capital punishment statute, important pre-Ring Supreme Court decisions that validated its constitutional legitimacy, the impact of several non-death penalty Supreme Court decisions in the lead up to Ring, Ring itself, and Florida’s response to Ring. The second section explores the facts, the procedural history, and the district court and Eleventh Circuit decisions in Evans. The third section discusses the legal analysis of the district court and the Eleventh Circuit decisions in Evans, and explains why this issue needs to be addressed by the Supreme Court. The fourth section examines the petitions filed in support of and in opposition to a writ of certiorari to determine why the Supreme Court declined to hear the Evans case. Finally, the fifth section concludes with examples of proactive steps that Florida can take to ensure that its capital sentencing procedures are constitutional under Ring.

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