Federal Judge Declares Florida Death Penalty Unconstitutional; Casey Anthony Fans Hopeful

We'll sum up U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez' 94-page ruling in Evans v. McNeil for you: Florida's death penalty is unconstitutional.

The crux of his ruling was a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling -- Ring v. Arizona -- that found that a jury must agree on the aggravating factors in recommending someone to die, and merely agreeing on the fact that they want to juice the defendant to death isn't justifiable.

Florida's law hasn't changed since that Supreme Court decision, and the jury that voted 9-3 to kill Paul H. Evans didn't come to that conclusion under the premise of aggravating factors in the case, Martinez says.

More simply, if a jury votes to have the defendant killed without using aggravating factors as the basis, it means it's voted for the defendant's death without considering whether the person is actually eligible for the death penalty.

"There are no specific findings of fact made by the jury," Martinez writes. "Indeed, the reviewing courts never know what aggravating or mitigating factors the jury found."

Under Florida procedure, the jury submits their recommendation, and the sentencing hearing for the defendant is held in front of the judge only.

In this case, Martinez contends, nobody knows how the jury came to its conclusion -- and whether a judge is imposing a death sentence for a different reason than the jury.

"This cannot be reconciled with Ring," Martinez writes.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi told the Palm Beach Post that she's appealing the ruling, even though it's not yet clear what impact Martinez' decision will have.

The case will likely make its way through the higher courts and, in the end, may not work retroactively like Ring v. Arizona -- which Martinez contends applies only to those sentenced to die after October 2002.

That brings us to why the timing of Martinez's decision is causing a flurry -- Casey Anthony.

For those following the case, it might not look too promising for Anthony, whose defense just opened a few days ago and has thus far consisted of a plant expert and the alleged molestation of Anthony when she was younger.

Anthony faces the death penalty if convicted of killing her daughter, and you can bet your bottom dollar her lawyers will cite Martinez's decision if her case comes to it.

It was the first thing asked by readers statewide when the news broke of Martinez's ruling -- would it affect Casey Anthony's case?

Bondi's spokeswoman says no.

"There is no immediate impact on death sentencing in Florida as a result of this ruling as the appeals process is not complete," says Jennifer Krell Davis, Bondi's spokeswoman.

However, Florida defense lawyers can still present the Ring v. Arizona argument and hope to get a decision similar to Martinez's.

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

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley