Florida's Capital Punishment Sentencing Is Unconstitutional

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 12, 2016 1:50 PM

Florida's capital punishment sentencing scheme is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled this morning. In an 8-1 opinion authored by Justice Sotomayor, the Court found that Florida violated the Sixth Amendment by allowing a judge and not a jury to make the final determination over whether a defendant should be put to death.

Florida employs a "hybrid" capital sentencing structure, where a jury recommends the death penalty but a judge decides whether a defendant shall ultimately face execution. Today's ruling rejects that scheme and highlights the central role jurors must play when courts impose the death penalty.

Florida's Hybrid Sentencing Scheme

The case, Hurst v. Florida, arises from the conviction of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was sentenced to death for the murder of his coworker, Cynthia Harrison. After a four-day trial, Hurst was found guilty of first degree murder. That's a capital crime in Florida, which can be punishable by death only if aggravating circumstances are found.

Under Florida law, the jury provides an advisory verdict, finding aggravating circumstances, but the judge, "notwithstanding the recommendation of a majority of the jury" decides whether to impose death or not.

That's just what happened to Hurst: his jury recommended death, the judge agreed, and Hurst sued, arguing that the process violated his Sixth Amendment right to trial by an impartial jury.

The Supreme Court agreed, finding that it's ruling in Ring v. Arizona made such a system unconstitutional.

There's a Familiar Ring to the Ruling

Allowing judges to find additional factors that would justify capital punishment risks exposing defendants to "a great punishment than that authorized by the jury's guilty verdict," the Court found in Ring. In that case, Arizona's capital sentencing scheme allowed judges, rather than juries, to find facts necessary to impose death.

Ring itself was an extension of the Court's 2000 opinion in Apprendi v. New Jersey, which found that any fact that could lead to greater punishment than authorized by a jury's verdict is an "element" that must be decided by the jury. That same logic applies to death sentences in Florida, as it did to bias enhancements in New Jersey in the Apprendi case, or capital punishments in Arizona, under Ring.

The Florida Supreme Court had earlier ruled that the state's capital sentencing scheme survived Ring, given the stare decisis effect of two pre-Apprendi Supreme Court decisions upholding the state's death penalty. Not so, the Court found, explicitly overruling those precedents, Hildwin v. Florida and Spaziano v. Florida. "Time and subsequent cases have washed away the logic" of those decisions, Justice Sotomayor wrote.

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