On Tuesday the Supreme Court heard cases involving the two most extreme punishments in the American criminal justice system: life without the possibility of parole and the death penalty.
The capital case comes to the justices, as it often does, from Florida. Only last year the court struck down the state’s rigid, unscientific law that tried to skirt around the court’s ban on executing intellectually disabled people.
This time the issue is the jury’s role in capital sentencing. Florida, alone among the states and the federal government, allows a non-unanimous jury to vote for a death sentence — which is why a man named Timothy Lee Hurst sits on the state’s death row even though five of the 12 jurors in his case voted against the death penalty. Mr. Hurst’s situation is common: According to one study, if Florida required unanimity, there would have been 70 percent fewer death sentences handed down since 2010.
In a questionable 1972 case, the Supreme Court required jury unanimity in federal criminal trials, but not in state trials. Mr. Hurst’s lawyer, Seth Waxman, argued to overturn that ruling, “particularly in the Eighth Amendment context where the question is death.” If unanimous verdicts are required in federal criminal cases, even those with modest penalties, it is grossly unjust that a state can carry out executions with divided juries. It is past time for the court to review and overturn the 1972 ruling.
Florida law also relegates the jury in a capital case to an advisory role, and leaves to the judge the final decision on whether to impose a death sentence. It is hard to see how this does not violate a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that juries, and not judges, must find an “aggravating” factor — like a crime was especially heinous — when a state imposes a death sentence.
Source: The New York Times, The Editorial Pages, October 13, 2015
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