U.S. SUPREME COURT STRIKES DOWN FLORIDA'S DEATH SENTENCING SCHEME
January 12, 2016: In an 8-1 decision in Hurst v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida's capital sentencing scheme in violation of the 6th Amendment, which guarantees the right to trial by jury.
"The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the opinion of the Court. The jury and judge in Hurst's case followed Florida's statutory sentencing procedure, which requires only an "advisory sentence" from a jury.
Florida does not require the jury to specify the factual basis of its sentencing recommendation.
The sentencing judge must give "great weight" to the jury's recommendation, but only the judge ever provides written reasons why a case is eligible for a death sentence.
The Court based its decision largely on Ring v. Arizona, a 2002 decision in which it struck down Arizona's sentencing scheme because a judge, rather than a jury, determined the facts necessary to impose a death sentence. While Florida's procedure adds the advisory recommendation that Arizona's lacked, the Court found the distinction, "immaterial." "As with Timothy Ring, 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 Hurstâs authorized punishment based on her own factfinding. In light of Ring, we hold that Hurstâs sentence violates the Sixth Amendment." Justice Alito dissented, citing past decisions upholding Florida's death penalty statute. Justice Breyer concurred with the Court's decision, but would find that the Eighth Amendment requires that a jury determine the actual sentence, not just the facts that make a person eligible for death. Because the high court's ruling is not retroactive, Butler said only death row inmates who have direct appeals still pending before the Florida Supreme Court may benefit from the decision. - Hurst's case has been sent back to Florida courts to determine whether he would still have been sentenced to death had the state relied exclusively on a jury to determine relevant facts. (Source: Washington Post, 12/01/2015)