Florida Death-Sentence System Voided by U.S. Supreme Court

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The United States Supreme Court is pictured on May 27, 2014, in Washington.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s unusual system for imposing the death penalty, faulting it for giving the jury only an advisory role in deciding whether capital punishment was warranted.

The 8-1 ruling came in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of stabbing a coworker to death in 1998 at a Popeye’s restaurant in Pensacola. A judge sentenced Hurst to death after a jury recommended execution on a 7-5 vote.

The high court said Florida’s system violated the U.S. constitutional right to a jury trial because it required the judge to independently assess the circumstances of the crime and the appropriateness of capital punishment.

The right to a jury trial “required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s fact-finding,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.

The decision is likely to have limited reach. Florida is one of only four states -- along with Alabama, Delaware and Montana -- that left the final decision on a death sentence to a judge.

Even so, the ruling creates a new obstacle for prosecutors in one of the biggest death-penalty states. Florida has 400 inmates on death row, second only to California, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which collects data on capital punishment.

New Challenges

Now “every single one of them will bring a Hurst challenge and the lower courts will sort it out in a variety of ways,” said Douglas Berman, a specialist on criminal sentencing who teaches at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

One issue will be “whether this decision just applies prospectively to future cases or whether the sentences of those currently on death row need to be revisited,” said Brianne Gorod, a lawyer with the Constitutional Accountability Center, which urged the court to strike down the Florida system.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement that “existing death sentences will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.” She said Florida will have to change its death-sentencing laws.

The ruling extends a line of decisions expanding the jury-trial right under the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment. In 2002, the court said in a 7-2 ruling known as Ring v. Arizona that juries must make the factual findings that support a death sentence. Tuesday’s ruling said Florida’s system was similarly flawed.

‘Critical Findings’

“Like Arizona at the time of Ring, Florida does not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty,” Sotomayor wrote. “Rather, Florida requires a judge to find these facts.”

Justice Samuel Alito cast the lone dissenting vote, saying Florida juries had more power than the majority was acknowledging. He pointed to a provision requiring the judge to give a jury’s recommendations “great weight.”

“The trial court performs what amounts, in practical terms, to a reviewing function,” Alito wrote.

Hurst was convicted of the 1998 murder of Cynthia Lee Harrison, a manager at a Popeye’s Fried Chicken restaurant in Escambia County, Florida. Harrison had been bound, gagged and stabbed several times.

Sotomayor’s opinion left open the possibility that Florida could make other arguments for sustaining Hurst’s sentence. She said lower courts could consider the state’s contention that any flaws in its death sentencing system didn’t affect Hurst’s ultimate sentence.

Florida is the only state that doesn’t require a capital jury to be unanimous on the key factual findings. That aspect of its sentencing system didn’t factor into the Supreme Court’s reasoning.

The case is Hurst v. Florida, 14-7505.

(Updates with reaction from Florida attorney general in ninth paragraph.)
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