State objects to life sentence in key death penalty case

Florida Department of Correction photo of Timothy Lee Hurst

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Attorney General Pam Bondi's office is disputing arguments that a Death Row inmate should receive life in prison after he successfully challenged Florida's death-penalty sentencing system in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bondi's office filed a document Monday in the Florida Supreme Court arguing that what is known a "harmless error analysis" should be conducted in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst. An attorney for Hurst filed a motion last month asking the state Supreme Court to send the case to a lower court for imposition of a life sentence. 

A challenge by Hurst led the U.S. Supreme Court in January to issue an 8-1 ruling that found Florida's death-penalty sentencing system unconstitutional. The ruling said juries -- not judges -- should be responsible for imposing the death penalty and that Florida's system of giving power to judges violated Hurst's Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury.

Lawmakers are moving forward with plans to change the sentencing system to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In the document filed Monday, Bondi's office said the U.S. Supreme Court required a "harmless error analysis" in the Hurst case. Broadly, such analyses determine whether errors are serious enough to require overturning earlier court decisions -- in Hurst's case, the decision to sentence him to death. "If the United States Supreme Court felt it appropriate to commute appellant's (Hurst's) sentence to life imprisonment, it could have done so,'' the document filed by Bondi's office said. "Instead, the High Court specifically remanded this case to this (Florida Supreme) Court with directions to conduct a harmless error analysis." 

Hurst was sentenced to death for the 1998 killing of fast-food worker Cynthia Harrison in Pensacola. Harrison, an assistant manager at a Popeye's Fried Chicken restaurant where Hurst worked, was bound, gagged and stabbed more than 60 times. Her body was found in a freezer.

The motion filed last month by Hurst's attorney did not take issue with his guilt. But it said Hurst should be sentenced to life in prison because he has "fundamentally been denied his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial" in sentencing.