TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Dec. 22 (UPI) -- More than 200 inmates on Florida's death row may be entitled to new sentencing hearings after the state's Supreme Court issued two rulings that recodify how the death penalty is applied in convictions.
The Florida Supreme Court issued rulings Thursday that solidify death penalties for inmates sentenced before June 2002 while offering a chance for more than half the inmates on death row to potentially be resentenced to life in prison.
The lives of death row inmates in Florida were put in limbo in January when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Florida's death penalty is unconstitutional five days after the execution of Oscar Ray Bolin.
The ruling, based on the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case Ring vs. Arizona that questioned laws allowing a judge to outweigh the decision of a jury during sentencing, determined Florida's death penalty -- which allowed judges to overrule juries during sentencing -- violates the Sixth Amendment.
"Florida's capital sentencing statute has essentially been unconstitutional since Ring in 2002," the court wrote Thursday.
After the U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Florida Legislature rewrote the laws to require 10 of 12 members of a jury to vote for the death penalty in order to enforce the punishment. The Florida Supreme Court then struck down that law as unconstitutional because it did not require a jury to be unanimous when sentencing someone to death.
Despite the dissent of one judge on the Florida Supreme Court recommending that all death sentences be commuted to life in prison, the court did not find the death penalty overall to be unconstitutional.
Instead, the court found that all inmates sentenced after 2002, who may have been sentenced unconstitutionally, are entitled to petition the court for new sentencing hearings. Should the court grant a new hearing, a jury would be assembled to resentence the inmates either to life in prison or death row.
Legal experts predict that for the roughly 200 death row inmates eligible to petition the court it could take up to a decade to hear all of the cases. Some justices suggested the legislature commute all existing death row sentences to life in prison to save time and money. The idea is unlikely to gain traction with legislators, though.
"The upshot is that between 150 and 200 people will need to be resentenced, opening old wounds and costing taxpayers millions of dollars," said Robert Smith, director of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School. "You can thank Florida's prosecutors for this situation."