Juries Get the Last Word in Florida’s Death Penalty, Supreme Court Says

Eight justices agree Florida's capital sentencing process is unconstitutional.

(Photo: Edward McCain/Getty Images)

Jan 12, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Until Tuesday, Florida remained a stubborn outlier when it came to sentencing convicted felons to death. Unlike nearly every other state in the union, Florida juries could only offer an “advisory sentence” to a trial judge in capital cases, rather than an immovable verdict. Alabama was the only other state that shared this capital sentencing practice.

No longer: The U.S. Supreme Court quashed Florida’s method in an opinion on Tuesday, ruling 8 to 1 that allowing a judge rather than a jury to render a capital sentence violated a defendant’s constitutional right to an impartial jury.

The ruling centered on the case of Timothy Hurst, a death row inmate convicted of first-degree murder for killing his coworker in 1998, stabbing her to death, and leaving her in a walk-in freezer before robbing the Popeyes restaurant where they worked. Even though the jury in Hurst’s case recommended a death sentence, the plaintiff’s argument was with the process and not the particulars of this case.

Therein lies the problem, the Supreme Court says. “Florida does not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a majority opinion. “Rather, Florida requires the judge to find these facts.” That violates the defendant’s right to an impartial jury under the Sixth Amendment.

Changing the way the Sunshine State handles its death sentencing process is important, because Florida is one of the country's leading jurisdictions in doling out death sentences. Nationwide, the number is waning except in a few counties. Just 2 percent of U.S. counties account for 52 percent of all death sentences handed out since the penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Duval County, Florida, ranks in the top 10.

“It is no surprise that the high court found Florida’s hit-or-miss death sentencing scheme unconstitutional,” Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said in a statement. “This hugely-expensive, mistake-ridden state government program has failed the people of our state.”

Hurst is the latest in a series of Supreme Court cases over the past several years that have nibbled at the edges of capital sentencing in the U.S., taking on lethal injection drugs, jury selection, execution of the mentally handicapped and of convicts for crimes committed as juveniles, and jury instructions.

No case before the court this term tackles the broader constitutionality of the process as a whole, though Justice Stephen Breyer seemed to invite such a case in a dissenting opinion he wrote in June 2015.