Supreme Court to Review Constitutionality of Florida’s Death Penalty Scheme
The Supreme Court’s new term begins on October 5, 2015. One of the first cases the justices will consider is Hurst v. Florida.
The case raises several questions about the constitutionality of Florida’s capital punishment scheme, particularly the role of the jury in assessing the death penalty.
The Facts of the Case
Timothy Lee Hurst was convicted for the May 2, 1998, first-degree murder of Cynthia Harrison in a robbery at a Florida Popeye’s restaurant, where Hurst was employed. During the penalty phase of his case, Hurst was sentenced to death.
On appeal, Hurst was granted a new sentencing proceeding because his defense counsel failed to investigate and present evidence of Hurst’s borderline intelligence, possible organic brain damage, and other mitigating factors. At his new sentencing trial, the court denied Hurst’s request to present mental retardation to the penalty phase jury as an absolute bar to recommendation of a death sentence. However, he was allowed to present mental retardation and other mental issues as mitigation to the jury. By a vote of 7-5, the jury recommended a death sentence. The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed.
The Legal Background
Under Florida’s death penalty statute, the jury recommends a sentence of life or death based on its assessment of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Only a majority vote is necessary for a death recommendation, and the jury need not agree on which aggravating circumstances exist that warrant the death penalty.
Ultimately, the trial judge is the final decision maker under Florida law. The court is not bound by the jury’s recommendation, but it may impose a death sentence only if it independently finds beyond a reasonable doubt that at least one “sufficient” aggravating circumstance exists and that the aggravators are not outweighed by any mitigating circumstances. In addition, only the judge’s written findings of fact are relevant on appellate review of a death sentence.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, Hurst argues that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme contravenes the Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona. In the landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires that the jury be entrusted with finding all facts necessary for the imposition of the death penalty, including sentencing aggravators. It also held that the Eighth Amendment requires that a jury, not a judge, make the decision to sentence a defendant to death.
The Issues Before the Court
The Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider 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.”
Hurst argues that his death sentence is unconstitutional because the advisory jury in the penalty phase was not required to find specific facts as to the aggravating factors, and because the jury was not required to make a unanimous recommendation as to the sentence. Meanwhile, the state maintains that Hurst’s sentence satisfies the Sixth Amendment because the jury’s advisory verdict implied that the jury necessarily engaged in the fact-finding required for the imposition of a higher sentence.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral argument on October 13, 2015.
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