The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a Florida law granting judges rather than juries the final say in whether convicted murders receive the death penalty. Some observers wonder whether the Jan. 12 ruling signals a step toward a broader decision on the constitutionality of the death penalty.
The 8-1 ruling marks the culmination of nearly two decades of Supreme Court opinions strengthening the role of juries in capital cases, veteran legal journalist Lyle Denniston wrote in an analysis.
“The Court has been working steadily for more than fifteen years, since its decision in 2000 in Apprendi v. New Jersey, to enhance the role of jurors in criminal trials,” Denniston wrote on the SCOTUS blog. “…Tuesday’s ruling on the Florida law appeared to have completed that process in any case in which a death sentence is at issue. No other state imitated the judicial veto that Florida’s scheme had protected.”
At issue specifically was the death sentence of Timothy Hurst, who was convicted of murdering a co-worker in 1998 while he robbed the restaurant where they both were employed. Following Hurst’s conviction, a jury recommended the death penalty and a judge imposed it. In 2009, the Florida Supreme Court vacated Hurst’s sentence, but three years later a judge once again sentenced him to death, following the advice of a jury.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, however, that Florida’s capital sentencing procedure violates the Sixth Amendment right “to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” because it regards a jury as merely “advisory,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority.
“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. Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional.”
More broadly, the court said, following its own precedent, any fact exposing “the defendant to a greater punishment than authorized by the jury’s guilty verdict … must be submitted to a jury.”
Justice Samuel Alito filed the lone dissent, arguing Florida judges perform only “what amounts, in practical terms, to a reviewing function” which “duplicates the steps previously performed by the jury.” No Florida judge has imposed the death penalty against the advice of a jury in more than 15 years, Alito noted.
Hurst’s case has been sent back to Florida courts to determine whether he would still have been sentenced to death had the state relied exclusively on a jury to determine relevant facts.
USA Today’s Richard Wolf called the Hurst ruling “another setback for proponents of capital punishment nationally at a time when the Supreme Court is hearing many such cases – and could ultimately rule on whether the death penalty itself violates the Constitution.”
In July, Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in a dissent to a case concerning Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure that the death penalty likely violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The Southern Baptist Convention, speaking in a 2000 resolution, “urge[d] that capital punishment be administered only when the pursuit of truth and justice result in clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt.” The resolution said capital punishment is “a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death” and called for “vigilance, justice, and equality in the criminal justice system.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)