A nearly unanimous Supreme Court struck down part of Florida’s capital punishment system this week. It found that Florida had given judges part of the role of jurors in determining whether to impose the death penalty. Only Associate Justice Samuel Alito (who has a pronounced record opposing rights for criminal defendants) voted to uphold the law. The case is Hurst v. Florida, No. 14-7505.
Timothy Lee Hurst 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. The murder was particularly gruesome. Hurst was convicted of taping the hands and mouth of Cindy Harrison, the assistant manager, and then savagely attacking her with a box cutter. He slit Harrison’s throat and left her in the restaurant freezer. He stole more than $1,000.
In 2000, a jury voted 11-1 to recommend the death sentence for Hurst, and a circuit judge agreed with the recommendation.
Putting aside the natural anger and disgust over the crime, the case presented a fundamental question of who decides such questions in our system. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for seven justices and held that “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.” The decision amplifies the decision in 2002, in Ring v. Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that juries and not judges must make the factual findings to support death sentences. It made no difference that Florida required the judge to consider the jury’s advisory verdict.
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 wrote a concurrence.
However, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented and argued that “In Ring, the jury found the defendant guilty of felony murder and did no more. 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.”
Here is the opinion: Hurst v. Florida
Source: NY Times