Florida’s Death Penalty Is Struck Down

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the state’s jury-sentencing system in capital cases violates the Sixth Amendment.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death-penalty system in an 8-1 decision on Tuesday, ruling that the state’s sentencing procedures violated the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial.

The case, Hurst v. Florida, challenged Florida’s unusual method of imposing death sentences. Under the state’s capital-sentencing law, the jury merely renders an “advisory sentence” and does not elaborate upon aggravating or mitigating circumstances. Once that is rendered, the judge then independently weighs the evidence and hands down the actual sentence.

At issue was the case of Timothy Hurst, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 2000 for the 1998 stabbing death of his coworker, Cynthia Lee Harrison. The Florida Supreme Court ordered him to be resentenced in 2012. At the second sentencing trial, the jury voted 7-5 in favor of the death penalty in their advisory sentence. The judge then reached his own finding of the facts and also sentenced Hurst to death.

For seven of the U.S. Supreme Court’s justices, this sentencing scheme clashed with the Court’s decision in the 2002 case Ring v. Arizona. In that decision, the Court struck down Arizona’s sentencing scheme because it allowed a judge, not a jury, to find the facts necessary to impose a death sentence on a defendant. Under the Sixth Amendment, criminal defendants are guaranteed the right to trial “by an impartial jury.”

Although the Arizona scheme did not include a jury at all, unlike Florida, the Court saw a difference without a distinction.

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

Justice Stephen Breyer, who also dissented in Ring and a similar group of Sixth Amendment cases, concurred with the Court’s judgment but not its reasoning. Instead, he argued imposing a death sentence on Hurst by anyone other than a jury violated the Eighth Amendment. In his solo dissent, Justice Samuel Alito also disagreed with the Court’s earlier Sixth Amendment rulings and argued that Florida’s system was far from identical to the one struck down by Ring.

Since Florida’s system of imposing death sentences is an outlier, Hurst’s impact in other states with capital punishment is limited. A notable exception could be Alabama’s controversial death-sentence scheme, which allows trial judges to override a jury’s sentence of life imprisonment and impose the death penalty instead, or vice versa. An Equal Justice Initiative report in 2014 found that state judges overrode jury verdicts in 111 capital cases in the state since 1976. In 91 percent of those cases, the judge imposed a death sentence after the jury opted for life.

But in Florida, the ruling will have significant implications for the state’s death row.

“Today’s ruling strikes at the heart of Florida’s death-penalty statute,” said David Menschel, a criminal-defense attorney who represented Florida death-row defendants and the president of the Vital Projects Fund, a nonprofit that works on criminal-justice issues. “It would seem to require the Florida legislature to pass a new statute if it wants to continue to sentence people to death.”

How many Florida death-row inmates will be eligible for resentencing is unknown. Tuesday’s ruling will apply to inmates whose appeals are ongoing, which could include dozens of inmates. Any Florida inmates sentenced after the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Ring could also be eligible for resentencing, Menschel noted.

Hurst’s scope beyond that will depend on the scope of future court decisions. The U.S. Supreme Court sets a high threshold for applying its decisions on criminal procedure to inmates whose appeals process has ended. But the Florida Supreme Court’s previous rulings on retroactive application are much broader than its national counterpart.

“In other words, depending on how the Florida Supreme Court interprets its own retroactivity provisions, today’s opinion could apply to everyone on Florida’s death row,” Menschel said.