Florida’s Death Penalty Unconstitutional in Part Says US Supreme Court

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Part of Florida’s death penalty law was declared unconstitutional on Jan. 12, 2016 by the US Supreme Court. The Court specifically found Florida’s provision that a judge, instead of a jury, must decide whether to sentence a person to the death penalty unconstitutional.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor delivered the majority opinion, stating “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.” The Sixth Amendment protects the right to an impartial jury. The justices’ 8-1 ruling in Hurst v. Florida overturns a 2014 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court.

The background of the case began in 1998 when Timothy Lee Hurst was convicted of murdering a coworker, Cynthia Harrison, in a Pensacola, Florida restaurant. The jury in the case was divided 7-5 to sentence Hurst to death. After the jury’s recommendation, the judge was required to hold a distinct hearing to evaluate whether the aggravating circumstances were sufficient to merit the death penalty. Despite the jury’s split decision, the judge decided to sentence Hurst to death.

The US Supreme Court’s majority opinion cited Ring v. Arizona (2002) in which the Court ruled that juries must do the fact finding, such as weighing aggravating circumstances, to impose the death penalty. 27 of 31 states that have the death penalty have the jury make the final decision about the death sentence. Florida, Alabama, Delaware, and Montana have had the judge impose final sentencing. Florida is one of three states that do not require unanimous jury recommendations for capital cases; Alabama and Delaware are the other two. Justice Stephen Breyer, in his own opinion, wrote that the sentencing method violated the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Samuel Alito dissented stating, “After unanimously determining guilt at trial, a Florida jury hears evidence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances… At the conclusion of this separate sentencing hearing, the jury may recommend a death sentence only if it finds that the State has proved one or more aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt and only after weighing the aggravating and mitigating factors.”

Florida has 385 men and 5 women on death row (the second highest amount of any state except California). How the ruling will affect those inmates is unclear but experts expect many appeals to have the sentences overturned.

2016 presidential candidates are split on the issue of the death penalty. O’Malley and Sanders are against keeping the death penalty as a legal option while Bush, Clinton, Cruz, Fiorina, Kasich, and Trump support keeping capital punishment. Carson, Christie, Huckabee, Paul, and Rubio are not clear on their positions or have not made public statements regarding the issue.

Sources:

Tonya Alanez, “Florida Death Penalty System Is Unconstitutional, Supreme Court Rules,” www.sun-sentinel.com, Jan. 12, 2016

Sam Hananel and AP, “U.S. Supreme Court: Florida Death Penalty System Is Unconstitutional,” www.orlandosentinel.com, Jan. 12, 2016

Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court Strikes Down Part of Florida Death Penalty Law,” www.nytimes.com, Jan. 12, 2016

Oyez, “Hurst v. Florida,” www.oyez.org, Jan. 12, 2016

US Supreme Court, “Hurst v. Florida,” www.supremecourt.gov, Jan. 12, 2016

Laura Wagner, “Supreme Court Strikes Down Florida’s Process of Imposing Death Penalty,” www.npr.org, Jan. 12, 2016