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Florida's Supreme Court Declares State Death Penalty Law Unconstitutional

In the latest of a string of rulings on Florida's death penalty law, the state's Supreme Court says juries should be unanimous in imposing a death sentence — something the recently revamped law does not require.

In Florida and most other state courts, a jury is required to reach a unanimous verdict — but perhaps because the size of the jury expands to 12 members in capital criminal cases, legislators opted to require only that 10 out of 12 jurors agree to impose a death sentence when they changed the law earlier this year. The state's high court rejected that arrangement Friday.

Florida changed its sentencing guidelines after the "U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that judges in the state had too much input in sentencing someone to death, when the jury alone has that constitutional responsibility," as member station WLRN reports.

The problem the U.S. justices had with the earlier law was that it required juries only to make an advisory recommendation for the death penalty — and that by leaving the imposition of the sentence to the judge, the law improperly disconnected the jury's finding of facts and aggravating factors from the burden of weighing the death penalty.

Friday's ruling throws the fate of hundreds of Florida death-penalty cases in doubt.

"Until the state Legislature can rewrite the sentencing procedure, the state effectively has no death penalty," WLRN reports.

Noting that the court also issued a separate ruling that grants a new sentencing to death row inmate Timothy Hurst — whose case prompted the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of Florida's law in January — WLRN adds, "What happens to the other almost 390 people on death row remains unclear."

Here's how NPR's Nina Totenberg described the way Florida handled capital cases before January's 8-1 ruling by the Supreme Court:

"Florida law allows juries in capital cases to recommend a sentence of death, or life in prison without parole — but it is the judge who is charged with finding facts, and judges can and do frequently disregard the jury's recommendation. Indeed, since the state death penalty law was enacted in 1972, judges have disregarded the jury's advisory on some 300 occasions, imposing either the harsher penalty of death or the lesser penalty of life."

In rejecting Florida's system, the high court broke with its own past. As Nina reported, the Supreme Court said "it was explicitly reversing those earlier decisions because, it said, 'the underpinnings' of those rulings have been 'eroded by time and subsequent developments in constitutional law.' "

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.