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Supreme Court to hear case challenging Florida's capital punishment rules

On Monday, the US Supreme Court agreed to take up an appeal by a Florida death-row inmate challenging the state's procedures for imposing the death penalty.

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    The US Supreme Court in Washington is shown in this Oct. 3, 2014 file photo.
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The US Supreme Court has agreed to examine whether Florida’s procedure for sentencing a criminal defendant to death violates constitutional protections established by the high court.

The justices announced on Monday that they will take up an appeal by Florida death-row inmate Timothy Lee Hurst challenging the state’s capital sentencing procedure, which permits inmates to receive a death sentence even when the jury was not unanimous in that recommendation.

The Hurst appeal marks the second death penalty case granted by the Supreme Court this year. In April, the justices are set to hear a case testing the constitutionality of the lethal injection protocol used in capital sentences in Oklahoma.

The Hurst case will likely be set for argument next fall, with a decision expected sometime next year.

Lawyers for Mr. Hurst had asked the high court to reverse his death sentence based on a mental disability. The court rejected that argument, but agreed to decide a second issue – whether the Florida sentencing scheme violates the holding in a 2002 high court decision Ring v. Arizona.

In the Ring case, the Supreme Court ruled that a jury – rather than a judge – must find any aggravating factors that are necessary to impose a death sentence.

In Florida, once a defendant is found guilty of a capital offense, the jury is then asked to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors before deciding if the defendant qualifies for a death sentence.

The determination by a Florida jury need not be unanimous for the defendant to ultimately receive a death sentence.

That’s what happened in the Hurst case. The jury voted 7-to-5 to recommend a death sentence. The trial judge agreed with the recommendation and sentenced Hurst to death.

Hurst’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender David Davis argued in his petition to the high court that Florida juries should be required to make two findings before an inmate is sentenced to death, and that both verdicts should be unanimous.

Mr. Davis argued that the jury should unanimously agree that aggravating factors in the crime outweigh mitigating factors. The jury’s recommendation of a death sentence should also be unanimous, he said.

“Those deficiencies lie at the heart of what Hurst asks this Court to correct,” Davis said in his brief.

In Florida, death sentences are not decided by juries. A jury’s findings provide a recommendation to the trial judge, who is empowered to hand down a capital sentence. Under Florida law, the judge is required to give the jury’s verdict “great weight,” but the judge can also reject a jury’s recommendation.

The question in the case is whether a 7-to-5 sentence recommendation is enough to satisfy the Sixth Amendment requirement that every criminal defendant is entitled to a jury trial.

“When a person’s life is at stake a vote of death should be unanimous,” Davis wrote in his brief.

Associate Deputy Attorney General Carolyn Snurkowski had urged in her brief to the court that the justices reject Hurst’s appeal.

She said the US Supreme Court had been repeatedly asked and had repeatedly declined to consider similar cases in the decade since the justices decided Ring v. Arizona.

“The Florida Supreme Court’s decision [upholding the sentencing scheme] does not conflict with Ring, or any other circuit court, or state court of last resort,” Ms. Snurkowski said.

In the process of making a capital sentencing recommendation, a Florida jury must necessarily engage in the kind of fact-finding required to impose a harsher sentence, she said.

That’s what happened in the Hurst case, she said. “Because the jury returned a recommendation of death, this Court may infer the jury did find at least one aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt,” Snurkowski wrote.

Florida is unique among states with capital punishment in allowing a death sentenced based on a 7-to-5 jury recommendation. Alabama allows non-unanimous recommendations in capital cases, but the state requires that at least 10 of the jurors agree that death is the appropriate sentence.

Hurst was found guilty of the May 1998 murder of an assistant manager at a Popeye’s Fried Chicken restaurant in Escambia County where he worked. The assistant manager was discovered in the restaurant freezer with her hands bound behind her back and electrical tape over her mouth. She had been slashed and stabbed with a box cutter more than 60 times. The restaurant safe was unlocked and open.

According to court files, Hurst admitted to two friends that he killed the assistant manager and robbed the store. He asked one friend to hide a plastic container full of money that he said was from the Popeye’s safe. He also asked the friend to wash his bloody clothes.

Hurst was convicted in March 2000. The following month the jury voted 11-to-1 to sentence Hurst to death.

On appeal, Hurst was granted a new sentencing hearing to explore whether he had a mental disability that would render him ineligible for a death sentence. The hearing was conducted in March 2012.

After that hearing, the jury voted 7-to-5 to impose a death sentence. The trial judge concluded that Hurst was not mentally disabled and sentenced him to death.

The case is Hurst v. Florida (14-7505).

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