Florida Death Sentence Scheme Unconstitutional: Jury Must Impose Death Sentence

In Hurst v. Florida the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme is unconstitutional because it allows the judge, instead of requiring the jury, to impose the death sentence.

In 2000 in Apprendi v. New Jersey the Court held that any factual determination that exposes a defendant to a punishment greater than that authorized by a jury’s guilty verdict must be determined by the jury. In Ring v. Arizona (2002) the Court held that Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme violated Apprendi because it allowed the judge to find facts necessary to impose the death sentence.

Florida’s scheme worked similar to Arizona’s. A jury verdict for first-degree murder would result in life in prison without parole unless a judge finds facts supporting a death sentence. But in Florida, unlike Arizona, the jury attends the sentencing evidentiary hearing and renders an “advisory verdict.” The jury does not have to specify any factual basis for its recommendation but the judge must give it “great weight.”

The Supreme Court opined that the advisory jury verdict does not make Florida’s sentencing scheme constitutional. “’It is true that in Florida the jury recommends a sentence, but it does not make specific factual findings with regard to the existence of mitigating or aggravating circumstances and its recommendation is not binding on the trial judge. A Florida trial court no more has the assistance of a jury’s findings of fact with respect to sentencing issues than does a trial judge in Arizona.’”

In two pre-Ring cases the Supreme Court approved Florida’s sentencing scheme and held that the Sixth Amendment does not require juries to make specific findings to impose the death penalty. In Ring, the Court did not overrule those cases. In Hurst it took the opportunity to overrule both of them.

In this case a jury found Timothy Lee Hurst guilty of first-degree murder for killing his co-worker. The jury recommended the death penalty and the judge sentenced him to death based on two aggravating factors—that the murder was heinous and committed during a robbery.

While Hurst won the battle, he may still lose the war. The Supreme Court left it to the lower court to decide whether the error in this case was harmless.

Justice Alito dissented arguing that the jury’s involvement in death sentencing in Florida is “critically important.” He pointed out that no Florida trial court has overruled a jury’s recommendation for a life sentence in more than 15 years.