Published on: Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Today the United States Supreme Court denied Florida death-row prisoner Michael Reynold’s petition for writ of certiorari from the Florida Supreme Court, over the dissent of Justice Sotomayor.  See Reynolds v. Florida, No. 18-5181 (Nov. 13, 2010) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). 

In Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616 (2016), the Supreme Court held that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme, under which an advisory jury makes a recommendation to a judge, and the judge makes the critical fact-findings needed for imposition of a death sentence, violated the Sixth Amendment because it allowed the judge to increase punishment based on her findings of fact. After Hurst was decided, Mr. Reynolds sought relief from the Florida Supreme Court.  Although that state court assumed that Hurst error had occurred at Mr. Reynold’s 2003 capital sentencing, it decided the error was harmless because his jury had unanimously recommended an “advisory sentence” for death.  Mr. Reynolds, along with several other similarly situated capital prisoners, sought certiorari review in the United States Supreme Court, challenging the state court’s harmless error analysis “because it treats the fact of a unanimous jury recommendations in their cases as highly significant, or legally dispositive, even though those juries were told repeatedly that their verdicts were merely advisory.” 

In Justice Sotomayor's dissent from the denial of certiorari, she explained: “Because the Florida Supreme Court’s harmless-error analysis relies heavily on the fact that a purely advisory jury rendered a unanimous decision, it raises serious questions under this Court’s precedents,” specifically, Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320 (1985) (holding it is “constitutionally impermissible to rest a death sentence on a determination made by a sentence who has been led to believe that the responsibility for determining the appropriateness of the defendant’s deathrests elsewhere”). Justice Sotomayor thrice before dissented from the denial of certiorari to consider “whether the Florida Supreme Court’s harmless-error approach is valid in light of Caldwell.”  She also said she “will continue to note my dissent in future cases raising the Caldwell question. 

Justice Breyer wrote a separate statement respecting the denial of certiorari, agreeing with much of Justice Sotomayor’s reasons for granting certiorari on the Caldwell question “in an appropriate case,” but would “not grant certiorari on that question here.”  “Rather than attempting to address the flaws” in the current practice of capital punishment, Justice Breyer reaffirmed his view that “it would be wise to reconsider the root cause of the problem—the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.”  Justice Thomas concurred separately to the denial of certiorari.  The petition for certiorari, response, and reply in Reynolds v. Florida are available on the Supreme Court’s website here

The Training Division provides support to federal capital defendants and federal habeas petitioners through the CapitalDefenseNetwork