In its first major decision of 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Florida's capital punishment sentencing scheme is unconstitutional. The Court held that juries, and not judges, should be the final arbiters of any facts related to handing down a death penalty sentence.
So what does this mean for capital punishment in Florida, and the death penalty nationwide?
Is the Jury or the Judge the Executioner?
A jury convicted Timothy Hurst of first-degree murder for killing a co-worker. Under Florida law, for a person to be sentenced to death there must be an additional sentencing proceeding that "results in findings by the court that such person shall be punished by death." During the sentencing proceeding, the judge conducts an evidentiary hearing before a jury and the jury, must vote on an advisory sentence. Then the court must independently consider the aggravating and mitigating circumstances before entering a sentence of life in prison or death.
In Hurst's case, the jury recommended the death penalty. The court sentenced Hurst to death, but he appealed and was granted a new sentencing hearing. The jury recommended the death penalty again, and the judge again found the facts necessary to sentence Hurst to death. It was this judicial fact-finding that was at issue.
Jury Verdicts Only
In its ruling, the Supreme Court found that this sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of an impartial jury trial, because the law "requires not the jury but a judge to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty." The Court relied on an earlier ruling in Apprendi v. New Jersey that any fact that "expose[s] the defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury's guilty verdict" is an "element" that must be decided by a jury.
Since Florida required the judge alone to find aggravating factors necessary for Hurst's death sentence, the sentencing scheme itself was ruled unconstitutional. But that doesn't mean that Hurst is off the hook. While Florida will have to change its death penalty procedures, this ruling doesn't outlaw the death penalty in the state. But a few inmates on death row may have their cases reconsidered.