September 27, 2023

US Supreme Court strikes Florida death-sentence procedure

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By Tony Mauro, The National Law Journal

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Florida’s death sentencing system, ruling that it improperly gives judges, rather than juries, the power to decide that a defendant’s punishment should be death rather than life in prison.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the 8-1 decision in Hurst v. Florida, invoking the court’s Ring v. Arizona precedent from 2002, in which the court said that facts resulting in an increase in a sentence to capital punishment must be determined by the jury.

“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,” Sotomayor wrote.

Death penalty opponents applauded the decision as another milestone in curtailing capital punishment.

“Juries across the country have become increasingly reluctant to vote in favor of death. The court’s ruling thus represents another step on the inevitable road toward ending the death penalty,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, said.

Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, added, “If Florida, like other states, had required a binding, unanimous jury verdict before a death sentence could be returned, it would have imposed 70 percent fewer death sentences over the last five years. Today’s decision should bring Florida within the nationwide trend of declining death sentences.” 

A Florida jury found Timothy Hurst guilty of murdering a co-worker in 1998, and recommended a death sentence. But under Florida law the maximum sentence for the crime would have been life in prison without parole, unless the judge makes separate findings about aggravating circumstances that could justify a death sentence. The judge in Hurst’s case did so, and sentenced him to death.

“The maximum punishment Timothy Hurst could have received without any judge-made findings was life in prison without parole. As with Ring, a judge increased Hurst’s authorized punishment based on her own fact-finding,” Sotomayor said. She rejected the Florida Supreme Court’s decision upholding Hurst’s sentence based on earlier U.S. Supreme Court rulings upholding Florida’s sentencing scheme.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a brief concurrence, joining Sotomayor’s conclusion but not her reasoning.

Justice Samuel Alito Jr. dissented, arguing that under the Florida system, the judge’s determination serves as a “reviewing function,” while the jury is the “initial and primary adjudicator” of the death sentence.

“More than 17 years have passed since Cynthia Harrison was brutally murdered. In the interest of bringing this protracted litigation to a close, I would rule on the issue of harmless error and would affirm the decision of the Florida Supreme Court,” Alito wrote.

The ruling could affect a handful of other “advisory sentencing” schemes in capital punishment states, including Alabama’s, according to Sidley Austin partner Eamon Joyce, who has represented death row inmates pro bono in the state.

“Alabama judges’ use of their power to enhance sentences far outstrips that in Florida,” Joyce said, referring to the authority Alabama judges have to override life sentences approved by jurors and turn them into death sentences. “It is difficult to see how the remaining advisory schemes, especially Alabama’s … possibly could survive constitutional scrutiny” in the wake of the Hurst ruling. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Hurst v. Florida is posted at link below. This story was updated with comment about the justices’ decision.

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