Florida prosecutors can seek death penalty despite questions

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Prosecutors can seek the death penalty in ongoing cases despite constitutional issues with the Florida’s death penalty law, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The ruling addresses questions that had prosecutors in limbo after the state Supreme Court ruled last October that the state’s new death penalty law was unconstitutional. Attorney General Pam Bondi had asked the court to clarify whether the ruling affected cases that were currently being prosecuted.

“I am pleased with the Florida Supreme Court’s decision today to allow ongoing capital punishment cases to proceed with proper jury instruction. This decision provides our courts with the clarification needed to proceed with murder cases in which the death penalty is sought,” Bondi said in a statement provided by a spokesman.

The ruling clears up at least some of the issues surrounding the state’s death penalty created by state and U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Florida’s death penalty law was upended as a result of a case involving Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of using a box-cutter to kill a co-worker at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant in 1998. A jury had divided 7-5 over whether Hurst deserved to die, but a judge imposed the death sentence.

The state Supreme Court initially upheld that sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016 declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision.

The Legislature responded by overhauling the law, but rejected calls to require a unanimous jury decision in future cases, instead allowing the death penalty to be imposed by a 10-2 jury vote.

In October, however, the state Supreme Court voted 5-2 to strike down the new law and require unanimous jury decisions for capital punishment.

The court released an opinion last month saying the death penalty couldn’t be applied in pending cases, but then withdrew the opinion hours later.

Bills are pending in the legislative session that begins next month to require a unanimous jury decision to impose the death penalty.

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