What Supreme Court's ruling on death penalty sentencing means for Florida

The US Supreme Court’s ruling in Hurst v. Florida will change how the state handles its capital punishment sentencing, granting juries the final decision when handing down the death penalty.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement/AP
The US Supreme Court sided with Timothy Lee Hurst Tuesday in ruling that Florida's unique system for sentencing people to death is unconstitutional because it gives too much power to judges and not enough to juries to decide capital sentences.

The US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday against Florida’s death sentencing system, which allowed judges to decide whether to impose the death penalty in court.

The 8 to 1 ruling in Hurst v. Florida struck down a system in which juries did not have the final say in the outcome of sentencing, only issuing an advisory sentence before a judge’s independent findings would decide a convict’s final fate.

The Court found this practice in conflict with the Sixth Amendment.

"The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death," As Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion. "A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough."

Justice Samuel Alito was the Court’s lone dissenter.

The Supreme Court’s decision favors Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of the 1998 murder of Cynthia Harrison, his manager at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant. The jury decided 7 to 5 in favor of the death penalty, but a judge issued the final sentence. Hurst’s case was returned to the Florida Supreme Court to decide whether his sentence would be affected by the ruling.

The decision could open the door for appeals from some of Florida’s 390 inmates sentenced to death, the second most in the nation behind California, although it is unlikely any sentences would be retroactively affected. Three of the 390 death row inmates were sentenced over an original jury recommendation, but no Florida judge has overridden a jury recommendation since 1999.

It is unclear whether the Florida decision will affect states with similar sentencing systems, including Alabama, Montana, and Delaware, but Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said in a statement that the ruling will not affect the state’s law.

The Court decided against Florida’s system despite twice upholding it, with Spaziano v. Florida in 1984 and Hildwin v. Florida in 1989, with Justice Sotomayor saying a 2002 decision involving an Arizona death penalty case contradicted the Court’s previous findings.

“Time and subsequent cases have washed away the logic of Spaziano and Hildwin,” she wrote in the decision. “Those decisions are thus overruled to the extent they allow a sentencing judge to find an aggravating circumstance, independent of a jury’s factfinding, that is necessary for imposition of the death penalty.”

The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Howard Simon, released a statement in favor of the high court ruling, saying “Florida leads the nation in the number of people exonerated or released from death row for any reason.”

“Florida is also the only state that allows a jury to recommend a death sentence by a majority vote,” he added. “There is a relationship between these two aspects of the death penalty system in Florida.”

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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