By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida | THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE– In a case stemming from the 1976 strangulation of a 13-year-old girl, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected arguments that a Death Row inmate should receive a new sentencing hearing.
The arguments by attorneys for inmate James Ernest Hitchcock were rooted in a major 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling and subsequent Florida decisions that have led to requiring unanimous jury recommendations before defendants can be sentenced to death.
With Hitchcock sent to Death Row after a 10-2 jury recommendation, his attorneys argued that the new unanimity standard should retroactively apply to his case and lead to a new sentencing hearing.
But justices, as they have done recently in other cases, rejected the idea that the unanimity requirement should be applied to such old cases. The opinion was fully shared by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Peggy Quince, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson, while justices R. Fred Lewis and Charles Canady concurred without signing on to the majority opinion.
Justice Barbara Pariente dissented and pointed, in part, to the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.
“Reliability is the linchpin of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, and a death sentence imposed without a unanimous jury verdict for death is inherently unreliable,” Pariente wrote.
Hitchcock, now 61, was convicted in the murder of his brother’s 13-year-old stepdaughter in Orange County, according to court documents. He was accused of going into the girl’s bedroom in the middle of the night, having sexual intercourse with her and then killing her when she said she was going to tell her mother.
Hitchcock had to be resentenced three times because of a series of U.S. Supreme Court and Florida Supreme Court rulings in his case. In his final sentencing proceeding, the jury voted 10-2 to recommend the death penalty, and the Florida Supreme Court upheld that sentence in 2000.
Thursday’s ruling stemmed, in part, from a January 2016 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that found Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries. That ruling, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, has spawned extensive litigation about death-penalty cases and legislation to change the sentencing system.
As part of that litigation, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that juries are required to make unanimous recommendations before judges can sentence defendants to death. Florida long allowed majorities of juries to recommend death sentences.
Also, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the unanimity standard should apply to cases dating back to 2002. That is when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, which was a key underpinning of the Hurst v. Florida decision.
Hitchcock and other longtime Death Row inmates have argued that the unanimity standard also should apply to cases decided before 2002. But the decision Thursday appeared to make clear that the Supreme Court will not go along with such arguments.
“Hitchcock is among those defendants whose death sentences were final before Ring, and his arguments do not compel departing from our precedent,” the majority opinion said.