Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Supreme Court Sets Aside Florida’s Death Penalty Sentencing Procedure

The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, has ruled that Florida’s system of allowing juries to make death penalty recommendations that judges may or may not follow is unconstitutional. According to Justice Sonia Sotomayer, the “jury’s recommendation is not enough. The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.” Only Justice Samuel Alito dissented from the January 12, 2016 majority ruling.

In the case of Florida death row prisoner Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of murder in 1998, the jury voted 7 to 5 in favor of capital punishment, and the judge agreed and sentenced him to death. In Florida the jury plays only an advisory role in whether to apply the death penalty, which a judge is free to disregard.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to “resolve whether Florida’s capital sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment in light of Ring [v. Arizona], 575 U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 1531, 191 L.Ed.2d 558 (2015). We hold that it does, and reverse.” The Court then proceeded to note that, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.... each element of a crime [must] be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.” In Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), the Court held that “‘expos[ing] the defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury guilty verdict’ is an ‘element’ that must be submitted to a jury.”

The Supreme Court further wrote that in the Ring case, “we concluded that Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme violated Apprendi’s rule because the State allowed a judge to find the facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death.... Like Arizona at the time of Ring, Florida does not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty. Rather, Florida requires a judge to find these facts.” Applying the holding of Ring to Hurst’s case, the Court found that process to be unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, while the Supreme Court’s ruling is a positive development for future death penalty proceedings, it is unclear whether or not this decision will be applied retroactively to benefit the 390 prisoners currently on Florida’s death row.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi indicated that the state will make changes to capital sentencing procedures: “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,” she said.

Prison Legal News joined an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court on behalf of Hurst. See: Hurst v. Florida, U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 14-7505; 2016 U.S. LEXIS 619 (U.S. 2016).

Additional source:

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login