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.”