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."