Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Fla. death sentencing statute violates Sixth Amendment
"Florida’s unique system for sentencing people to death is unconstitutional because it gives too much power to judges — and not enough to juries — to decide capital sentences, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The 8-1 ruling said that the state’s sentencing procedure is flawed because juries play only an advisory role in recommending death while the judge can reach a different decision.
The decision could trigger new sentencing appeals from some of the 390 inmates on the Florida’s death row, a number second only to California. But legal experts said it may apply only to those whose initial appeals are not yet exhausted.
The court sided with Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of the 1998 murder of his manager at a Popeye’s restaurant in Pensacola. A jury divided 7-5 in favor of death, but a judge imposed the sentence.
Florida’s solicitor general argued that the system was acceptable because a jury first decides if the defendant is eligible for the death penalty.
Writing for the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said a jury’s “mere recommendation is not enough.” She said the court was overruling previous decisions upholding the state’s sentencing process.
“The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” Sotomayor said.
The justices sent the case back to the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether the error in sentencing Hurst was harmless, or whether he should get a new sentencing hearing."