A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated the way Florida imposes the death penalty, finding that it violates the Sixth Amendment. The action could spark new appeals by many of the nearly 400 prisoners in the state facing death sentences.
In its 8-1 decision in Hurst v. Florida, issued earlier this month, the high court overturned Florida’s one-of-a-kind method for deciding when to impose capital punishment. The court’s opinion, authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and joined by all members of the court except Justice Samuel Alito, ruled that Florida’s procedures unconstitutionally give too little power to juries and too much to judges.
Timothy Lee Hurst, the prisoner appealing a death sentence, had been a 19-year-old early shift worker in a Popeye’s restaurant in Pensacola. One day in May 1998, the store failed to open on time, and later arriving co-workers found the store’s safe open and the manager’s lifeless body in the freezer (she had been tied up and stabbed more than 60 times).
Hurst, the only other worker scheduled for the store’s opening that morning, claimed he had not come to work due to car trouble, but witnesses at his trial claimed he had spoken of plans to rob the store, discarded blood-stained clothing, and bought personal items with stolen money.
Under Florida’s procedures, conviction on a felony involving a possible death sentence brings a maximum sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole, unless a separate post-conviction proceeding finds the death sentence warranted. The sentencing judge presides over that hearing, in which the jury renders an “advisory sentence,” for which only a majority vote is needed.
But the jury’s recommendation is not binding: the presiding judge next makes an independent ruling, weighing any mitigating or aggravating factors, to determine whether or not to enter a death sentence.
After Hurst’s conviction, the jury recommended the death sentence, although not unanimously, and the judge then determined the facts of the case justified it. Hurst’s initial conviction was overturned on other grounds, but a later re-trial brought another conviction, jury recommendation of a death sentence (though only by a 7-5 margin), and another determination by the presiding judge that the death penalty was warranted.
By a 4-3 margin, the Florida Supreme Court in 2014 rejected Hurst’s appeal attacking the state’s procedures as violating the Sixth Amendment, thus setting the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of the issue.
The state’s procedure violated the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to a jury trial, the high court ruled, because it allowed the judge to disregard the jury’s recommendation. Drawing on a 2002 Supreme Court case (Arizona v. Ring) which struck down another state law which had permitted a judge to impose a “special verdict” death sentence on a convicted felon without the jury’s involvement, if the judge found aggravating factors sufficient to justify doing so.
The central defect in Florida’s procedure, according to the Hurst decision, is that, under the Sixth Amendment, a jury – not an independently reviewing judge – must determine every fact needed to justify a death sentence. Having a jury merely recommend the sentence was not sufficient, the high court ruled.
It remains to be seen what actions the Florida legislature may take to amend its death penalty procedures, and how many Florida prisoners on the state’s Death Row may be able to launch new appeals based on the Hurst decision. We look forward to the outcome of this one, in a time of needed change.