SCOTUS rules Florida's death penalty unconstitutional

WASHINGTON – In a major decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday found that Florida's death-penalty sentencing system is unconstitutional. The case focused on the role of juries in recommending whether defendants should receive the death penalty.

The justices on Tuesday ruled 8-1 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.

"We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional,'' the Supreme Court opinion said. "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury's mere recommendation is not enough." 

DOCUMENTS: Supreme Court decision on Hurst vs. Florida |
List of Florida inmates on death row

In 2011, Cecil King was sentenced to death for beating to death 82-year-old Renie Telzer Bain with a hammer when he broke into her home. King is on death row and Tuesday when members of Bain’s family heard the U.S. Supreme Court found the Florida Death Penalty sentencing system unconstitutional they were angry.

Bernie de Rionda has tried more death penalty cases in Florida than most prosecutors.  De Rionda said he received a number of text and calls from other families concerned by Tuesday’s ruling.

“I think it's important that those families be cognizant of the fact we will follow the law and will seek the death penalty in appropriate cases,” De Rionda said. “We will battle each case individually, one at a time, in terms of seeking justice.

Attorney Rod Sullivan doesn’t believe this new ruling will means resentencing for death row cases. Jacksonville currently has 60 death row cases.  He said the ruling Tuesday involved other factors in the case.

“Basically what it means is the Florida statute that involves sentencing for death is flawed. What it does is allow the jury just to make an advisory determination and the judge to make the final decision,” Sullivan said. “The new statute is going to have to require the jury to find that there is an aggravating circumstance that warrants death. They are not going to have to find it unanimously, but they're going to have to find it by majority.”

The court ordered a new sentencing hearing for 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.

Under Florida law, the state requires juries in capital sentencing hearings to weigh factors for and against imposing a death sentence. But the judge is not bound by those findings and can reach a different conclusion. The judge can also weigh other factors independently. So a jury could base its decision on one particular aggravating factor, but a judge could then rely on a different factor the jury never considered.

"In light of today’s United States Supreme Court decision holding Florida’s capital sentencing procedure unconstitutional, the state will need to make changes to its death-sentencing statutes," Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement. "I will work with state lawmakers this legislative session to ensure that those changes comply with the court’s latest decision. The impact of the court’s ruling on existing death sentences will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis."

In Hurst's case, prosecutors asked the jury to consider two aggravating factors: the murder was committed during a robbery and it was "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel." But Florida law did not require the jury to say how it voted on each factor. Hurst's attorney argued that it was possible only four jurors agreed with one, while three agreed with the other.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that a defendant has the right to have a jury decide whether the circumstances of a crime warrant a sentence of death.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.

Justice Samuel Alito dissented, saying that the trial judge in Florida simply performs a reviewing function that duplicates what the jury has done.

Florida is one of only three states that do not require a unanimous jury verdict when sentencing someone to death. The others are Alabama and Delaware.

The state has executed 92 people since the death penalty was reinstated in in 1979 and 390 more are on death row.

Oscar Ray Bolin Jr., who was convicted of killing three women in the Tampa area, was executed last Thursday. The following day, Gov. Rick Scott signed a death warrant for Mark Asay, who was convicted of killing two Jacksonville men in 1987.

About the Author: