State vs. Poole
The background section may be especially helpful to understand this case.
In a 4-1 decision, the majority reverses the lower court's order to cancel Poole's death sentence and rejects his request for a new trial.
This ruling also overrides precedent. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court compared Florida’s death sentencing process with an Arizona ruling. They decided Florida's process was unconstitutional. Because of that, the Florida Supreme Court made changes to the state’s death sentencing process in Hurst v. State (Hurst). In the Hurst ruling, the Court reviewed the U.S. Supreme Court instructions. It also looked at other relevant court cases, the 6th and 8th amendments, Florida statues, and the Florida Constitution to come to its decision. It declared a jury must unanimously agree to impose a death sentence. This decision reverses that requirement.
The ruling reads:
"It is no small matter for one Court to conclude that a predecessor Court has clearly erred. … Under these circumstances, it would be unreasonable for us not to recede from Hurst v. State’s erroneous holdings."
For Poole's case, the state of Florida asked the Florida Supreme Court to re-examine its own Hurst decision from 4 years earlier. In that time several justices had been replaced.
The majority determined that the Hurst ruling misunderstood instructions from the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling said giving a judge total power to find aggravating circumstances and decide if a defendant is eligible for the death penalty violated the Sixth Amendment. The majority finds:
- the U.S. Supreme Court it didn’t give much additional instruction.
- the Hurst ruling took away "discretion" from the Legislature to determine the law.
- that in State v. Steele (2005), the Florida Supreme Court considered what it would mean if the Arizona ruling applied in Florida. At that time the Court said it would only require the jury find at least one aggravating factor exists.
In its review, the majority say Hurst did not consider both eligibility and selection separately. The majority says the U.S. Supreme Court only indicated that the jury is required to decide the eligibility portion. It did not say the jury must decide if the death penalty actually gets selected. They also believe that none of the references from the Hurst decision required the jury to make the selection.
The majority acknowledges how unusual it is to reverse itself. Poole did point to precedent from a 2003 ruling that outlines what to consider before reversing a decision, but the majority didn’t feel that was a best practice.
In 2017, the Florida Legislature updated the sentencing law to require a unanimous jury vote for the death penalty. That remains in effect. With Poole's ruling, the unanimous jury requirement will only apply to those sentenced after the Legislature's update in 2017. Even though Poole’s jury didn't unanimously agree to sentence him to death, he was sentenced before 2017. His death sentence is restored.
Poole had also requested a new trial. In addition to murder, Poole was charged with other crimes. He argues that, against his wishes, his trial lawyer told the jury that he "acknowledges" he committed the other crimes. The majority dismissed his request. They said in order for them to consider his current argument, he would have had to present the exact same argument in his post-conviction motion. He did include it in his post-hearing written closing arguments, but that wasn't enough.
Dissent: Justice Labarga
"In the strongest possible terms, I dissent ... this Court has taken a giant step backward and removed a significant safeguard for the just application of the death penalty in Florida."
Labarga's objects to this ruling. He explains that state law often goes further than what is required by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Florida Supreme Court’s role is to determine the meaning and extent of the Florida Constitution. They have a duty to independently examine state law as long as their findings don’t go against federal law.
He disagrees that the Hurst decision took away the Legislature's "discretion". He argues that this Court is the third and equal branch of the government. It is the Court's responsibility to interpret the laws created by the Legislature. The only branch of government that can interpret if Florida’s death penalty law is constitutional is the Judicial branch.
He says that for over 100 years, Florida law has required that a jury unanimously vote to convict for a criminal offense. This logic was used in making the Hurst decision, because in the sentencing phase, the selection of the death penalty is parallel to a verdict. Labarga says it "defies reason" to reduce the jury's level of responsibility when it comes to imposing a death sentence. Because of this, Labarga argues that the Florida Constitution requires a jury unanimously recommend a sentence of death.
Labarga points out the finality and seriousness of a death sentence. Florida is the state with the most death row exonerations. He argues that reasonable safeguards, like a unanimous jury vote, help make sure the death penalty is narrowly and fairly handed out for only the worst crimes.
He also considers federal law and where other states stand. Not requiring a unanimous jury vote conflicts with federal death penalty law. And there is only one other state that does not require a unanimous jury recommendation to sentence someone to death.
Concurring Specially: Justice Lawson
"... it is clear that Poole suffered no constitutional deprivation in ... his sentence and that we cannot reach a correct legal result ... without receding in part from Hurst v. State."
Lawson writes against Justice Labarga's dissent. He reasons that:
- federal laws and other states' laws are irrelevant.
- the Legislature updated the sentencing laws to match the 2016 Hurst decision. Florida will require unanimous jury recommendations unless the Legislature updates the law again.
- Labarga's assertion that there was precedent to uphold the 2016 Hurst decision is not accurate.
- he sees safeguards in the sentencing and appeals processes, so he does not believe a safeguard has been eliminated.
Florida's Death Sentencing Rules
In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Florida's death sentencing procedures unconstitutional (read opinion). They said a jury, not a judge, must be the one to determine aggravating factors, mitigating factors, and how they balance out. Before 2016, Florida law asked the jury to make a recommendation to the judge. In their recommendation, they weren't asked to provide their determinations on these factors. The judge was tasked with determining these factors themselves. The jury recommendation was considered, but the judge made the final decision.
In March 2016, the Florida Legislature updated the sentencing laws. In order to sentence someone to death, the new laws required Florida juries to:
- unanimously find at least 1 aggravating factor.
- recommend a death sentence with a vote of at least 10-2.
In October 2016, the Florida Supreme Court ruled on Hurst v. State (Hurst). In the ruling, they reviewed the instructions from the earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision and the updated requirements from the Legislature. The Florida Supreme Court found the Legislature's update unconstitutional. Amongst other things, they said a unanimous jury vote was required for a death sentence. In March 2017, the Florida Legislature updated the sentencing laws again to require a unanimous jury vote to impose a death sentence.
In an 11-1 vote, the the jury recommended the death penalty for Mark Anthony Poole, and the judge sentenced him to death. He appealed to the Florida Supreme Court before the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed Florida's death sentencing procedures. They rejected his appeal.
After the changes to sentencing rules, a trial court reversed Poole's death sentence because it violated Hurst. The state of Florida asked the Florida Supreme Court to re-examine the Hurst decision in an attempt to restore Poole's death sentence.
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