Grand Jury Power in Death Penalty Cases
The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted review in Hurst v. Florida, which challenges the constitutionality of a Florida law limiting the power of the jury in death penalty cases.
The criminal law case raises interesting questions with regard a defendant’s rights under both the Sixth and Eighth Amendments.
The Facts of the Case
In 1998, Timothy Hurst was convicted of the first-degree murder of Cynthia Harrison, a fellow employee at Popeye’s Restaurant. By a vote of 7-5, a sentencing jury later voted that Hurst be punished by death, and he was placed on death row for execution.
Hurst subsequently appealed his death sentence to the Florida Supreme Court. He maintained that the court failed to properly consider his intellectual disability claim and that his death sentence was not proportional given his low mental functioning. Hurst further argued that the death penalty was unconstitutional because the jury should have been required to make specific findings regarding the existence of aggravating factors and reach a unanimous verdict on the sentence, as required under existing Supreme Court precedent.
The Florida Supreme Court ultimately affirmed the sentence, finding that Florida sentencing procedures do not provide for jury input about the existence of aggravating factors prior to sentencing. The court also rejected all of Hurst’s remaining claims and affirmed his sentence.
The Legal Background
Hurst’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari argues that Florida courts failed to follow the precedent established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Ring v. Arizona with regard to death sentencing. In the 2002 case, the Supreme Court held that capital defendants are entitled to a jury determination of any fact on which the legislature conditions an increase in the maximum punishment. In response, Florida officials maintain that the mandate of a jury finding “does not apply when a trial court is presented with facts that a lower sentence should be imposed.”
The Issues Before the Court
The Supreme Court limited its grant to the following question: Whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of this Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona?
The case will be the second time in the past few years that the U.S. Supreme Court has addressed how Florida imposes the death penalty. Last term, the justices ruled that a Florida state law that imposes an IQ cutoff of 70 for determining mental disability was unconstitutional because it creates an unacceptable risk that defendants with intellectual disabilities will be put to death.
The Hurst case will also be closely watched given that more than 20 other states have similar death penalty procedures. Oral arguments will be heard in the 2015-2016 term, likely in October.
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Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.