Supreme Court Invalidates Florida Death Penalty Law

The United States Supreme Court has determined Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedure is unconstitutional due to the role trial judges have in finalizing sentencing. The decision reverses a 1980’s opinion regarding the same question, and sets the future of close to 400 Florida death row inmates into doubt.

Florida Death Penalty Challenge

Last March the Supreme Court agreed to review Florida’s death penalty procedures in response to a challenge by inmate Timothy Hurst, 36, who was convicted for the 1998 murder of his manager at Popeye’s fast-food restaurant.  Hurst, who may be intellectually disabled, received a recommendation for death sentence by a 7 – 5 vote among the jurors in his capital case which was affirmed by the trial judge.  During his appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, Hurst argued Florida’s system which allows for a judge to make the final decision regarding the death penalty based on a sentence recommendation by a divided jury is unconstitutional in violation of the 6th Amendment right to a jury trial and 8th Amendment right to avoid cruel and unusual punishment.

Florida’s Supreme Court disagreed and upheld Hurst’s sentence and the Florida death penalty sentencing process, leading to the United States Supreme Court review.  In accepting Hurst’s appeal, SCOTUS agreed to consider whether or not a death penalty sentence issued by a judge who is operating on the recommendation from the jury is constitutional.

SCOTUS Dismisses Florida Death Penalty Process

In an 8 – 1 decision, the Supreme Court majority voted Florida’s death penalty process was unconstitutional because judges in the state encroached on a decision which should be left to jurors.  Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor instructed the Sixth Amendment confers the right to a jury trial which “requires a jury and not a judge find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”  According to Sotomayor, the “mere recommendation” of a death sentence from a jury is not sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the constitution.

Although the distinction between sentence recommendation and final sentencing decision may seem minor, it is a critical one because judges can, and do, overrule jury recommendations.  While this is sometimes beneficial to Florida defendants, the outcome of judicial decisions on death penalty sentences is irrelevant when reviewing the constitutionality of the process.  As Justice Sotomayor pointed out, the correct interpretation of the 6th Amendment recognizes that jurors are charged with reviewing all relevant case facts and making ultimate decisions about what should happen to a defendant based on those facts.

Florida defended its process by arguing that jurors make their recommendation based on a review the facts, however, this argument was ultimately dismissed by SCOTUS because the judge has the final say and can use an independent review of the facts to determine the appropriate death penalty sentence.  After the Florida death penalty ruling, a system which allows the possibility of judges removing the fact-finding role which is granted to jurors is no longer constitutional.

Florida Death Penalty Decision Raises Questions for Inmates

In 2002, the Supreme Court struck down a similar death penalty process used in Arizona which not only set the tone for this week’s decision about Florida’s capital trials, but also provided a harbinger of the next important legal issue: what to do about the 390 death row inmates awaiting execution in Florida.  Whether a Supreme Court decision invalidating a criminal justice process applies retroactively to defendants who have been already convicted depends largely on state law, which means the Florida Supreme Court will need to make a decision about what to do with the state’s death row inmates.

Defense attorneys and death penalty opponents in Florida have already begun to argue that the state should offer new sentencing hearings to each of the defendants who were, but some experts on capital jurisprudence have predicted the Supreme Court’s decision will only apply to the 150 inmates who have not fully exhausted their appeals.  Regardless of how the Florida Court decides to address the question of retroactively applying this week’s SCOTUS ruling to death row inmates, it seems the decision will need to be made fairly quickly as convicted two-time murderer Cary Michael Lambrix is scheduled to be executed on February 11th.

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