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.
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.