As of March 13, 2017, Florida has a death penalty again.
Though the sentence is law again in Florida, many inmates continue to live on Death Row without knowing if they will ultimately die by the state’s hand or not.
In Cell 1: Florida’s Death Penalty In Limbo, we brought you the story of why the death penalty was thrown into a state of uncertainty and how that affects people on Death Row, their families and victims’ families. It was a deep dive into how, for a year, Florida's death penalty was rendered all but defunct despite many efforts to reinstate it. Those efforts came in spite of declining numbers of death sentences and executions nationwide.
Florida has, for decades, bucked those trends.
The back-and-forth between state rules governing how to sentence someone to death and court decisions throwing them out has ended, at least for now. In March, the Florida Legislature passed new rules about how to sentence someone to death, bringing the state in line with the latest court decisions. Still, no new Death Row inmates have been executed in Florida since January 2016, and legal challenges continue to be fought.
Here is quick summary of the key dates in this story:
Nov. 30, 2015: Gov. Rick Scott signs Mike Lambrix’s death warrant.
Jan. 7, 2016: Oscar Bolin is executed. He was the last person executed in Florida.
Jan. 12, 2016: The U.S. Supreme Court issues its opinion in Hurst v. Florida throwing out the state’s death penalty because it allowed judges, not juries, to hand down that sentence.
Feb 2, 2016: Lambrix gets a stay of execution.
March 3, 2016: Florida Legislature passes new sentencing rules, giving juries the final say in a death sentence instead of a judge. Scott signs the bill into law March 7, 2016.
Oct. 14, 2016: The Florida Supreme Court throws out the new death penalty rules, says juries must be unanimous when they hand down a death sentence. Before, a simple majority was sufficient.
Dec 22, 2016: The Florida Supreme Court decides how the Hurst decision should apply to already sentenced inmates, whether it should apply retroactively. Roughly 200 will have a chance at a new sentence.
Feb 21, 2016: The Florida Supreme Court will allow death penalty cases to move forward--even without new rules from the Legislature--as long as courts require a unanimous jury to hand down the sentence.
March 9, 2017: The Florida Legislature passes new rules for the death penalty. The rules now require a unanimous jury in addition to continuing the practice of requiring the jury to have the final say.
The Death Penalty
The death penalty is officially back on the books in Florida. The state Supreme Court took some of the pressure off the Legislature to pass new, constitutional rules governing how the state will hand down a death sentence by ruling in February that pending cases could proceed as long as courts only sentenced people to death based on a unanimous jury.
The Florida Legislature passed new sentencing rules as one of its first pieces of legislation in the 2017 session. The new rules require a unanimous jury in order for a death sentence to be imposed.
Mark Asay and Mike Lambrix are the two Death Row inmates whose death warrants had been signed before Florida’s death penalty was thrown into limbo. Asay has exhausted all his appeals and the stay for his execution has been lifted.
Nevertheless, Gov. Scott has not yet re-certified Asay’s death warrant. That restraint is presumably because Attorney General Pam Bondi had petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision by the Florida Supreme Court regarding the state’s death penalty. On May 23, the high court decided not to hear that petition, which means the current decision will stand.
In essence, the Hurst decision gives about 200 Death Row inmates the chance at a new sentence. In reviewing each of those requests for resentencing, the Florida Supreme Court has granted new sentencing trials for inmates whose death sentence was not agreed upon unanimously by the jury.
On March 9, Lambrix lost his appeal to have his sentence overturned in light of the Hurst decision. You can read the decision here.
Unless a federal appellate court steps in, it looks like Lambrix’s death sentence will stand untouched by all the changes brought about by the Hurst decision.
“I think it’s yet another example of politics trumping the administration of justice and once again exposes the moral corruption of our highest courts,” wrote Lambrix after the Florida Supreme Court decided he would not get a chance at a new sentence.
He is confident that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue of how the state interpreted the Hurst decision to apply only to some Death Row inmates, but is not confident that will happen this iteration of that petition for review.
“The real question is how many more of us will be illegally executed before the U.S. [Supreme Court] gets around to telling the [Florida Supreme Court] it was wrong again?” writes Lambrix.
“The truth of the matter is that I do struggle with feelings of anger and contempt towards our politically corrupt judicial system, and I don’t like that. It’s been my philosophy to not allow the negativity of my experience to become part of who I am. I’ve seen far too many here grow angry and bitter as the years pass and it eats them up like a form of cancer--and that’s not who I want to become,” Lambrix writes.
He says when he is rescheduled for execution--he is pretty sure it will happen sooner or later--“there’s nothing I can do about it, except choose how I will respond,” writes Lambrix.
He says he plans to hunger strike if his death warrant is signed again. You can read some of his letters here:
Darlene Farah, Shelby Farah’s Mother
The man who murdered 20-year-old Shelby Farah has been sentenced to life in prison. Darlene Farah has been fighting against former Jacksonville State Attorney Angela Corey’s office, which wanted to pursue the death penalty in the trial of James Rhodes.
Farah opposed the death penalty in her daughter’s case and tried for 3 1/2 years to get the prosecutors to offer a plea deal. After Corey lost her bid for reelection to Melissa Nelson, the new team worked with Shelby’s mother Darlene Farah and offered the deal.
On March 2, the 25-year-old Rhodes pleaded guilty in court to the murder of Shelby Farah and was given two life sentences plus 20 years and relinquishes his right to appeal. He sobbed and then collapsed as Darlene spoke in court about the impact his actions have had on her and her family as they struggle to deal with the the loss of a daughter and sister.
“I was so angry with him in the beginning and I refuse to live with hate on my heart. And it's a sad situation. I don't feel sorry for him because he was old enough to know wrong from right,” said Darlene, who said in court that she forgave him.
Throughout the process Darlene has said she wanted to meet with Rhodes, but lawyers suggested it best to not do that until the case was closed. In March, at the State Attorney’s office, she sat next to him at a table, without glass between them as is customary, and they talked for an hour.
“Nothing that's ever happened throughout these four years ever gave us peace. What gave my two children and I a little bit of peace was being able to sit down and talk to him,” said Darlene Farah. “I didn't want him to go to prison being angry... I told him I wanted him to be a role model prisoner.”
She says while they spoke he cried as he apologized and tried to explain how he came to shoot and kill Shelby Farah during a robbery of a store where she was working.
Over the course of her case, she has also called for reform of the child welfare system in which Rhodes, for the most part, was raised. His defense lawyer says he was sexually abused and bullied during his time in the state system.
“That gun that took my daughter's life away, I feel like the state put that gun in his hands. The state raised him. They made him who he is today,” said Farah.
While her case is over, Farah says she is also determined to fight for victims' rights and services, so they don’t have to find out how to navigate the system the difficult way, like she did. She says this is her way of moving on.
“I feel like I saved another mother's child. I feel good because I saved a life,” said Farah. “I'm glad it's over, of course. I'm glowing again because I'm out there doing something positive. I'm focusing on the good.”