The Supreme Court of the United States recently decided a death penalty case, Hurst v. Florida. The case dealt with the constitutionality of how defendants were sentenced in Florida.
Currently 31 states have laws that permit executions, including Florida. As of July 1, 2015 2,959 people are on death row in the United States. Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia do not permit prisoners to be put to death for crimes. In addition, several governors have refused to permit death sentences to be carried out while they are in office, including Governor Jay Inslee of Washington.
In Hurst, defendant Timothy Lee Hurst was charged with the murder of his co-worker Cynthia Harrison after Harrison was found with 60 stab wounds in the freezer of the restaurant where Hurst and Harrison worked. The state offered substantial forensic evidence as well as witness testimony that linked Hurst to Harrison's death. The jury subsequently found Hurst guilty of first-degree murder, which is a capitol offense in Florida.
The procedure to sentence a person to death in Florida requires an additional sentencing proceeding. At this proceeding, a jury renders an advisory verdict after an evidentiary hearing. The judge then makes the final determination as to whether the defendant will be sentenced to life in prison or to death. The judge does not have to follow the jury's recommendation, though it must be given great weight. The "sentencing order must 'reflect the trial judge's independent judgment about existing aggravating and mitigating factors.'"
Initially, Hurst was sentenced to death after a jury recommended it and the judge agreed. On appeal to the Florida Supreme Court that death sentence was vacated. Hurst then went through a second sentencing proceeding where the jury again recommended death. The judge agreed, basing her decision on her own findings and the jury's recommendation. On appeal Hurst contended that his sentence was unconstitutional under the Sixth Amendment. The Florida Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the conviction. Hurst appealed to the United States Supreme Court who agreed to hear the case.
The Sixth Amendment states in part that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury." The court stated that "[t]his right, in conjunction with the Due Process Clause, requires that each element of a crime be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt." The court held in Apprendi v. New Jersey that "any fact that 'expose[s] the defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury's guilty verdict' is an 'element' that must be submitted to a jury." The court applied this rule to death penalty cases in Ring v. Arizona. Ring dealt with Arizona's death penalty sentencing scheme. In Arizona a judge held the power to independently sentence a defendant to death if the judge found an aggravating circumstance. The court held that this violated the ruling in Apprendi.
Similarly, the court in Hurst found that Florida also has a judge making the "critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty." Because a judge was making his or her own findings of fact in imposing the death penalty on defendants the court found Florida's sentencing procedure to be unconstitutional. The court held that "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death."
How Florida will move forward with death penalty cases remains to be seen. One thing is certain though, Florida must change its sentencing procedure in order to comply with the court's decision.