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U.S. Supreme Court rules Florida death penalty system is unconstitutional

(UPDATED)

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down Florida’s controversial system that allows judges, and not juries, to decide whether or not convicted criminals deserve the death penalty.

The high court ruled 8-1 against the current system, with only Justice Samuel Alito dissenting.

The court sided with Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of the 1998 murder of his manager at a Popeye’s restaurant in Pensacola. A jury divided 7-5 for death, but a judge imposed the sentence.

Under Florida law, the state requires juries in capital sentencing hearings to weigh factors for and against imposing a death sentence. But the judge is not bound by those findings and can reach a different conclusion. The judge can also weigh other factors independently. So a jury could base its decision on one particular aggravating factor, but a judge could then rely on a different factor the jury never considered.

Florida’s solicitor general argued that the system was acceptable because a jury first decides whether the defendant is eligible for the death penalty. Attorneys who challenged the law said that Florida’s death penalty system is in violation of a previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Ring v. Arizona. In that case the court found that a jury — not a judge — must find that a defendant qualifies for the death penalty. Most other states whose statutes violated Ring have changed their laws, but Florida has not.

“We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who delivered the opinion for the majority of the court. “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a concurring opinion, where he quoted from the Eighth amendment. The Eighth Amendment requires that a jury, not a judge, make the decision to sentence a defendant to death.'”

The U.S. Supreme Court is now sending the case back to the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether Hurst should get a new sentencing hearing.

In his dissent, Justice Alito noted that if the jury in a capital case in Florida recommends a life sentence, the judge may override that decision only, “If the facts suggesting a sentence of death were so clear and convincing that virtually no reasonable person could differ.” He also noted that no Florida trial court has overruled a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence for more than 15 years.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said today that the state will need to make changes to its death-sentencing statutes.
“I will work with state lawmakers this legislative session to ensure that those changes comply with the Court’s latest decision,” Bondi said in a statement on Tuesday evening. “I will work with state lawmakers this legislative session to ensure that those changes comply with the Court’s latest decision. The impact of the Court’s ruling on existing death sentences will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”
Two bills have already been filed in the Legislature to change the statute in the Florida Legislature: HB 157 by Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez and SB 330 by Sen. Thad Altman. 
Critics said it should no surprise that the Supreme Court ruled against the state.
“Our Legislature has repeatedly been warned by the Florida Supreme Court, legislators who had proposed corrective legislation, and advocates like the ACLU that the sentencing structure in Florida, by which a unanimous jury recommendation is required for guilt, but only a simple majority can recommend a sentence of death, is unconstitutional,” said Howard Simon, executive director with the ACLU of Florida. “Under Florida’s sentencing scheme, the recommendation of a jury is only advisory, and the judge is — unconstitutionally, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled today — given the power to be the ultimate fact-finder.”

It is no surprise that the High court found Florida’s hit-or-miss death sentencing scheme unconstitutional,” said Mark Elliott, Director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP),  “Florida leads the nation in sending innocent people to death row.”

The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that a defendant has the right to have a jury decide whether the circumstances of a crime warrant a sentence of death.

Florida is one of only three states that do not require a unanimous jury verdict when sentencing someone to death. The others are Alabama and Delaware.

Reporters Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster, Jim Rosica and Melissa Ross contributed to this story.
Written By

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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