Courts & Crime

Supreme Court strikes down Florida’s way of imposing death sentences

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. McClatchy

The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Florida’s death-penalty practice, concluding that the state’s unique system, which combines a jury’s non-unanimous recommendation with a trial judge’s final decision, violates the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment.

In an 8-1 decision that united liberal and conservative justices, the court bluntly overturned several past opinions that had upheld Florida’s system.

“The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”

The court’s 10-page ruling is a victory for death-row inmate Timothy Lee Hurst and a direct challenge to Florida state lawmakers, who will probably have to rewrite the rules in order to fully preserve capital punishment.

The fate of the 37-year-old Hurst may still be fought out in lower courts, as state-level judges next decide whether the legal error in his case was harmless.

Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is . . . unconstitutional.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

It was unclear how the ruling would immediately affect the 400 inmates facing the death penalty in Florida, though a number of similar challenges might be forthcoming.

“If Florida, like other states, had required a binding, unanimous jury verdict before a death sentence could be returned, it would have imposed 70 percent fewer death sentences over the last five years,” said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice.

Whitney Ray, director of media relations for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, said in an email Tuesday afternoon that “we are reviewing the ruling.”

Nationwide, Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, predicted that the decision “represents another step on the inevitable road toward ending the death penalty” because of jurors’ decreasing willingness to impose death.

Only 49 death sentences were imposed last year, down from 315 in 1996, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The decision issued Tuesday morning capped a case that began May 2, 1998, when a murder and robbery occurred at a Popeye’s restaurant in Pensacola. Cynthia Harrison, a young assistant manager, was found bound; she’d been stabbed 60 times on her face, neck, back and arms.

Nineteen years old at the time of the murder, Hurst has consistently professed his innocence. His defense attorneys also have argued he was psychologically damaged from childhood and has below-average mental capacity.

Under Florida law, a death sentence requires the finding of at least one aggravating circumstance; for instance, that the killing occurred during the course of another felony, or was particularly heinous.

The jury makes a nonbinding recommendation of life or death, after weighing both aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The jury, though, does not have to spell out the factual basis for its recommendation. The judge makes the final sentencing decision, giving “great weight” to the jury’s recommendation.

The jury in Hurst’s case recommended a death sentence by 7 to 5. The trial judge, on her own, made the formal findings concerning aggravating circumstances that are necessary to justify the death penalty.

“The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury,” Sotomayor wrote. “This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s factfinding.”

Sotomayor added that “time and subsequent cases have washed away the logic” of earlier court decisions that upheld Florida’s system. These subsequent cases included a 2002 decision that, Sotomayor noted, “held that capital defendants are entitled to a jury determination of any fact on which the legislature conditions an increase in the maximum punishment.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, citing his previously expressed opposition to the death penalty, sided only with the majority’s judgment. Justice Samuel Alito authored the only dissent, stressing that “more than 17 years have passed since Cynthia Harrison was brutally murdered” and the importance of “bringing this protracted litigation to a close.”

Joel Hirschhorn, a criminal defense attorney with the Miami-based firm Gray Robinson, said Tuesday that the state’s death-row inmates must now “hurry and wait for the Florida Supreme Court to apply the new rule of law or wait for the Florida Legislature to act.”

In 27 of the 31 states that maintain the death penalty, the jury makes the final decision whether to impose the death penalty. Only Florida, Alabama, Delaware and Montana leave the final sentencing decision up to the trial judge.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10