"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court rules Florida's death penalty system is unconstitutional

Florida's death chamber
Florida's death chamber
The Supreme Court struck down Florida's unique capital sentencing system on Tuesday in a ruling that found the state gives too much power to judges — and not enough to juries — to impose the death penalty.

In an 8-1 opinion, written for the majority by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court concluded that the state's sentencing procedure is unconstitutional because juries play only an advisory role in recommending life or death. Though judges must give "great weight" to jurors' recommendations, they can reach a different decision.

"The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death," wrote Sotomayor. "A jury's mere recommendation is not enough."

The opinion was joined by six of the other justices, with the exception of Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote a separate concurring opinion, and Justice Samuel Alito, who was the lone voice of dissent.

The decision could lead to wave of appeals from many of the 390 inmates on the Florida's death row, a number second only to California. It arrives days after the state executed convicted serial killer Oscar Ray Bolin Jr., who was repeatedly sentenced to death by judges acting on non-unanimous jury recommendations. Since then, Gov. Rick Scott has signed death warrants for two more men, Cary M. Lambrix and Mark J. Asay.

In Tuesday's opinion, the court sided with Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of the 1998 murder of Cynthia Harrison, his manager at a Popeye's restaurant in Pensacola. In 2012, a jury voted 7-5 in favor of death and a judge imposed the sentence, basing it in part on her own independent reasoning.

In arguments before the Supreme Court, Florida's solicitor general said that the state's system was acceptable because a jury first decides if the defendant is eligible for the death penalty.

But in the court's opinion, 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.

In his dissent, Alito said that the trial judge in Florida simply performs a reviewing function that duplicates what the jury has done.

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 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.

Sotomayor said Florida's system is flawed because it allows a sentencing judge to find aggravating factors "independent of a jury's fact finding."

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.

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.

News of the high court's decision stunned Florida legislators. Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli who learned of the ruling while he was giving a speech to open the state's annual legislative session, said the Supreme Court had "impeccable timing."

Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican, said House legal experts would begin to review the ruling. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, an attorney who has dealt with capital punishment during his legislative career, predicted that Florida legislators would act swiftly to get the death penalty "right back on track."

Source: Tampa Bay Times, Anna M. Phillips, January 12, 2016

Supreme Court Strikes Down Part of Florida Death Penalty

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down an aspect of Florida’s capital punishment system, saying it did not give jurors a sufficient role in deciding whether defendants should be put to death.

Florida has about 400 inmates on death row, the second most in the nation. It was not immediately clear how many of the prisoners will be entitled to new sentencing hearings. A 2004 Supreme Court decision indicated that, at least in federal court, rulings like the one issued Tuesday would not apply retroactively to inmates whose convictions are final.

The decision, Hurst v. Florida, No. 14-7505, concerned Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of the 1998 murder of Cynthia Lee Harrison, a co-worker at a Popeyes restaurant in Escambia County, Fla. He was tried and sentenced to death in 2000.

After the Florida Supreme Court ordered Mr. Hurst resentenced, a second jury in 2012 recommended a death sentence by a 7-to-5 vote. The judge then independently considered the evidence concerning the appropriate punishment and concluded that Mr. Hurst should be executed.

That procedure was unconstitutional, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for seven justices. “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” she wrote. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”

In 2002, in Ring v. Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that juries and not judges must make the factual findings to support death sentences. Justice Sotomayor said the Ring decision doomed Florida’s approach. “The analysis the Ring court applied to Arizona’s sentencing scheme applies equally to Florida’s,” she wrote. “Like Arizona at the time of Ring, Florida does not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty. Rather, Florida requires a judge to find these facts.”

It made no difference, Justice Sotomayor wrote, that judges in Florida were required to take account of a jury’s advisory verdict.

Tuesday’s decision overruled two precedents that had upheld Florida’s capital punishment system. “Time and subsequent cases have washed away the logic” of those earlier decisions, Justice Sotomayor wrote. “The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury,” she wrote. “This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s fact-finding.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer voted with the majority but did not adopt its rationale. He said Florida’s approach violated the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment, rather than the Sixth Amendment. (He had taken a similar approach in a concurrence in the Ring decision.)

This was, Justice Breyer wrote, a different road to the same destination. “No one argues that Florida’s juries actually sentence capital defendants to death — that job is left to Florida’s judges,” he wrote. “Like the majority, therefore, I would reverse the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented, saying that the court should have followed its precedents on the Florida system. In any event, he said, the Ring decision did not require striking down the system.

“In Ring, the jury found the defendant guilty of felony murder and did no more,” he wrote. “Under that system, the jury played no role in the capital sentencing process. The Florida system is quite different. In Florida, the jury sits as the initial and primary adjudicator of the factors bearing on the death penalty.”

Under Florida law, judges there must give capital sentencing recommendations “great weight,” Justice Alito wrote, meaning that “the trial court performs what amounts, in practical terms, to a reviewing function.”

When the case was argued in October, some justices asked about another aspect of the Florida system, which did not require a unanimous recommendation from the advisory jury. Only Louisiana and Oregon allow non-unanimous verdicts in most criminal cases, and even then at least 10 of the 12 jurors have to agree. The two states require unanimous verdicts in capital cases.

The Supreme Court upheld Oregon’s approach in 1972. At the argument, Justice Sotomayor suggested that the court should consider overruling that decision. But her opinion on Tuesday did not address the issue.

Source: The New York Times, Adam Liptak, January 12, 2016

- Report an error, an omission: deathpenaltynews@gmail.com - Follow us on Facebook and Twitter