Supreme Court Deals Blow to Death Penalty in Florida Case

By Richey, Warren | The Christian Science Monitor, January 12, 2016 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Deals Blow to Death Penalty in Florida Case


Richey, Warren, The Christian Science Monitor


The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down as unconstitutional the procedure used by Florida judges to sentence defendants to death.

The action is expected to make it more difficult to issue death sentences in Florida by requiring the direct involvement of a jury in the decision to end a convicted defendant's life.

Death penalty opponents hailed the decision as progress toward abolition of capital punishment in the US. It comes at a time of heightened concern nationwide about the fairness of the death penalty and at a time of increased scrutiny of capital punishment cases.

"By striking down Florida's capital punishment scheme, the Supreme Court restored the central role of the jury in imposing the death penalty," Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement.

"Juries across the country have become increasingly reluctant to vote in favor of death," she said. "The court's ruling thus represents another step on the inevitable road toward ending the death penalty."

The high court ruled 8 to 1 that Florida's capital sentencing scheme did not comply with constitutional safeguards because it authorized Florida judges rather than juries to issue death sentences.

"We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion. "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death."

Under Florida's approach, a jury is required at trial to determine whether the defendant is guilty of a capital crime. After a conviction, the jury moves to the sentencing phase of the trial.

In the sentencing phase, the jury is required to weigh any aggravating and any mitigating circumstances that might support or undercut a death sentence. The jury is then required to issue an advisory sentence.

Once that advisory sentence has been issued, Florida law requires the trial judge to give "great weight" to the jury's recommendation. But ultimately the judge's sentencing order must reflect the judge's independent judgment about the aggravating and mitigating factors, according to Florida law.

Without such judge-made findings, the maximum punishment someone convicted of a capital crime can receive in Florida is life in prison without parole.

The Supreme Court said the flaw in Florida's capital sentencing system was that it relied on the judge rather than the jury to make the final determination that the defendant would be sentenced to death.

The Supreme Court had twice upheld the Florida capital sentencing scheme in 1984 and in 1989. But Justice Sotomayor said those earlier decisions had been undercut by a 2002 Supreme Court decision in an Arizona death penalty case.

"Time and subsequent cases have washed away the logic of" the earlier decisions, she wrote.

The capital sentencing scheme in Florida is a hybrid among states that enforce capital punishment. In addition to Florida, Alabama and Delaware authorize advisory sentences from juries in death cases with a judge making the final determination of life or death.

The high court decision came in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of the 1998 murder of an assistant manager at a Popeye's Fried Chicken restaurant in Escambia County. Mr. Hurst was a Popeye's employee. He and the assistant manager were the only two employees scheduled to work at the time the assistant manager was killed in gruesome fashion. …

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