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U.S. Supreme Court rules Florida's death penalty system is unconstitutional

An undated photo supplied by the Florida Department of Corrections shows a gurney used to execute death row inmates with a lethal injection at Florida State Prison in Starke.
An undated photo supplied by the Florida Department of Corrections shows a gurney used to execute death row inmates with a lethal injection at Florida State Prison in Starke.
Published Jan. 13, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's unique capital sentencing system on Tuesday in a ruling that found the state gives too much power to judges, and not enough to juries, to impose the death penalty.

In an 8-1 opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority, said that the state's sentencing procedure is unconstitutional because juries play an advisory role in recommending life or death. State law requires judges to make the final decision, after giving "great weight" to jurors' recommendations.

HURST V. FLORIDA: Read the court's full opinion

Experts said the decision will likely lead to a wave of appeals from many of the 390 inmates on death row in Florida, which has the second most after California.

It's unclear how many of those prisoners will be entitled to be re-sentenced. In their opinion, the justices did not address the question of whether inmates who have reached the end of their appeals, and whose convictions are final, should have the ruling applied to them retroactively.

"It's clear this decision is going to apply to all cases that are not yet final," said Karen Gottlieb, a law professor and co-director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University. "But the decision raises so many other questions and there are no easy answers. There really is chaos at this point."

These are the 390 inmates on death row in Florida right now

The court's opinion arrived on the opening day of the state's legislative session, effectively forcing on Florida lawmakers the responsibility of re-writing the state's capital punishment scheme. Until legislators act, it's likely that dozens of pending death penalty cases will be on hold, slowing the pace of litigation that takes years to reach trial under normal circumstances.

"The state will need to make changes to its death-sentencing statutes," Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a prepared statement following the court's ruling. "I will work with state lawmakers this legislative session to ensure that those changes comply with the Court's latest decision."

In Tuesday's opinion, Sotomayor wrote that the central problem with Florida's law is the lack of authority it allows jurors, who are not required to give a specific factual basis for their recommendation. Judges must consider the jury's vote, but they can act independently, sentencing defendants to life or death regardless of the jury's advisory opinion.

"The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death," wrote Sotomayor. "A jury's mere recommendation is not enough."

The opinion was joined by six justices, with the exception of Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote a separate concurring opinion, and Justice Samuel Alito, who was the lone voice of dissent.

The case, Hurst v. Florida, centered on Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of the 1998 murder of Cynthia Harrison, his manager at a Popeye's restaurant in Pensacola. Harrison's body was found in the restaurant's freezer; she had been bound, gagged, and stabbed over 60 times.

Tried and sentenced to death in 2000, Hurst was ordered to be re-sentenced, and in 2012 a second jury voted 7-5 in favor of death. After independently weighing the evidence in the case, a judge ruled that Hurst should be executed.

In arguments before the Supreme Court, Allen Winsor, Florida's solicitor general, said that the state's hybrid system was constitutional because it allowed juries to decide a defendant's fate first. To have a judge make a determination after the jury "only provides the defendant additional protection," he said.

"The State fails to appreciate the central and singular role the judge plays under Florida law," Sotomayor wrote.

Citing a 2002 case, Ring v. Arizona, in which the Supreme Court ruled that only a jury, not a judge, could find the facts necessary to sentence someone to death, she said the court's previous ruling in that case "applies equally to Florida."

It does not matter that Florida judges must weigh jurors' recommendations, she wrote.

In his dissent, Alito wrote that under Florida's system, the judge merely performs "a reviewing function" once a jury has made its decision. He said the court should have followed two cases decided before Ring that upheld Florida's sentencing scheme.

Nowhere in its opinion did the court address another issue that was raised during oral argument in October: the constitutionality of allowing a simple majority of jurors to recommend the death penalty. Florida is one of only three states — the others are Alabama and Delaware — that don't require a unanimous jury verdict when sentencing someone to death and allow a judge to override a jury's recommendation.

The court sent the case back to the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether Hurst should receive a new sentencing hearing.

This aspect of Florida's peculiar capital sentencing system has survived repeated legal challenges as well as various failed efforts over the years to reform it in the legislature.

In 2005, the Florida Supreme Court, in an opinion written by former Justice Raoul Cantero Jr., urged the legislature to require juries to reach unanimous findings of fact and "to require some unanimity in the jury's recommendations."

The following year, the American Bar Association released a report recommending, among other things, that the state re-examine its law allowing judges to override jurors' recommendations in death penalty cases. It warned that the existing law might be unconstitutional.

"The legislature is clearly on deck," said Mark Schlakman, a Florida State University law professor who was on the ABA's Florida Death Penalty Assessment Team. "It's just ironic, if nothing else, that the legislature could have acted years ago."

Public defenders in the Tampa Bay area estimated the court's ruling would have an immediate effect on more than 30 death penalty cases that have yet to go to trial.

"Between questions over whether the decision applies retroactively and the need for the legislature to act, I don't think any death cases will go forward," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger.

Reflecting on the timing of the court's decision, which came days after Florida executed convicted serial killer Oscar Ray Bolin Jr., Dillinger wondered at the "incongruity" of allowing a man to be put to death who was sentenced based on a now-unconstitutional statute.

Since Bolin's execution last week, Gov. Rick Scott has signed death warrants for two more men, Cary M. Lambrix and Mark J. Asay.

"This has been the law since 1972," Gottlieb said. "There have been many people executed under a statute that we now know is unconstitutional."

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