Video: New death penalty ruling complicates Casey Anthony case

By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/23/2011 8:51:15 AM ET 2011-06-23T12:51:15

A federal judge has declared that Florida's system for sentencing in death penalty cases is unconstitutional, a ruling that could become a factor in the prosecution of Casey Anthony, the Florida mother accused of murdering her daughter. Her trial is under way in Orlando.

The ruling will be cited in every capital case pending in the state, defense lawyers and legal experts predict, though Florida's attorney general said it would have no immediate statewide effect.

"Now we've got a judge who is properly applying the law. We will surely use it in cases that we're arguing now," said Todd Doss, a Florida defense lawyer who handles death penalty cases.

Under Florida state law a jury recommends a sentence of either life or death, but the judge actually decides what sentence to impose. The jury is instructed to evaluate the factors of the specific crime and then make its recommendation.

Jurors evaluate aggravating factors that lean toward the death penalty, such as the nature of the violence involved of the crime, and mitigating factors that lean against it, such as a defendant's background.

But the jury need not be unanimous about which factors apply, nor does its verdict in the sentencing phase specify which factors were the deciding ones. It simply makes a recommendation of life or death.

On Monday, Federal Judge Jose Martinez ruled that the Florida sentencing procedure violates a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which held that a jury, not a judge, must find the factors that could increase a sentence.

"The Constitution requires that a jury find, beyond a reasonable doubt, any aggravating factor that must be found before the death penalty may be imposed," Martinez said.

"As the Florida sentencing statute currently operates in practice," he said, "the jury's recommendation is not a factual finding sufficient to satisfy the Constitution. Rather, it is simply a sentencing recommendation made without a clear factual finding. In effect, the only meaningful findings regarding aggravating factors are made by the judge."

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His decision came in the case of a man convicted in a murder-for-hire scheme. The judge in that case had found, after the jury recommended the death penalty, that capital punishment was appropriate because the murder was committed for financial gain, even though the jury never made any finding on that in reaching its guilty verdict.

The ruling by Martinez "is immediately binding precedent in Florida's southern federal district," said Ira Robbins, a professor of American University's Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C. He said that district includes Miami but not Orlando, where Casey Anthony is on trial in Florida's middle federal district. Anthony is accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, in the summer of 2008.

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Jennifer Krell Davis, a spokesman for Pam Bondi, Florida's attorney general, said the state will ask the judge to reconsider his ruling.

"There is no immediate impact on death sentencing in Florida as a result of this ruling as the appeals process is not complete," Davis said the attorney general's office has concluded.

But the ruling was praised by groups opposed to the death penalty.

"This is yet another sign of the systematic injustices that make up Florida’s death penalty system, which is already plagued by wrongful convictions, racial inequities, the highest rate of exonerations and inadequate legal representation," said Howard Simon of the ACLU of Florida.

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