As COVID-19 has raged across Florida, the state’s Supreme Court has been on a rampage of its own, issuing an unprecedented string of opinions that removes important safeguards designed to protect defendants facing the death penalty. It is an alarming development in the state with the nation’s most death row exonerations, where death penalty practices have repeatedly been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, The Intercept reports. “Today, the majority takes the most consequential step yet in dismantling the reasonable safeguards contained within Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence,” Florida Justice Jorge Labarga wrote in opposition to an October decision. “I could not dissent more strongly.” Labarga has issued an increasingly agitated line of dissenting opinions in response to a new conservative majority that has tossed aside years of precedent.
Since taking office in 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis has reshaped the state’s highest court, turning a moderate panel into what some now consider the nation’s most conservative state supreme court Amid the pandemic, the newly reconstituted court has issued four consequential rulings eliminating legal guardrails meant to ensure that capital cases do not run afoul of constitutional protections, including the ban on cruel and unusual punishments. “There’s no delicate way of saying this: The court has lost its legitimacy,” said Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center. The unraveling of Florida’s death penalty precedents dates to a 2016 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that Florida’s death penalty scheme was unconstitutional because it treated a jury’s decision on sentencing as merely “advisory.” The ruling meant that up to half of the nearly 400 people on death row at the time could be eligible for resentencing. So far, the majority of those whose cases have been resolved were resentenced to life in prison; two have been exonerated.