A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding Florida’s death penalty law sheds light on the importance of juries as part of the legal system. For years, many have argued that, in general, the death penalty should be deemed cruel and unfair, and thus should be prohibited under the US Constitution. However, that argument typically falls short at the federal level.
Nevertheless, the US Supreme Court has deemed Florida’s system for death sentences to be unconstitutional. When dealing with capital cases, Florida permits juries to recommend the death penalty or life in prison. But the judge could simply disregard whatever the jury recommended.
More specifically, Justice Sotomayor stated that under the 6th Amendment right to a jury trial, juries (and not judges) are required to “find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”
What Brought About the Decision?
The case that brought about the decision involved Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted for stabbing his manager to death back in 1998. At the time of his case, the jury recommended the death sentence; however, they did not do so based on any finding of facts that actually justified imposing a death sentence.
There was also no way to determine whether the individuals making the recommendation even agreed on one aggravating factor/justification.
As noted above, Florida’s jury system is an “untraditional” system in that the judge had the authority to make findings of fact and then, if he or she found it necessary, the jury’s decision could be ignored and the judge could render a completely different decision.
Some say that Florida judges had no problem using that authority, noting that there have been at least 300 occasions where the judge made a different decision than the jury.
The Court recognized that the law had been challenged and upheld previously, as courts are typically hesitant to overturn decisions that were made previously. However, it was stated that both societal changes and time have changed their previous opinion on the subject.
What Does This Mean for People on Florida’s Death Row?
Naturally, many people are wondering whether this recent decision will be applied to those currently on death row. Florida’s Supreme Court will likely consider the level of retroactivity on a case-by-case basis. That said, death row inmates will need to seek legal assistance from Sarasota criminal defense attorneys who can help them challenge their rulings on a constitutional basis.
It is important for individuals to understand that the recent decision by the US Supreme Court will have a limited effect on attempts to invalidate the death penalty altogether — unless the laws being applied remove the ability for juries to make decisions.
Right now, Alabama is the only other state that has a law like Florida’s law. Still, if you or someone you love is facing criminal charges, it is crucial that you ensure all your constitutional rights are protected. Call (941) 900-3100 today to discuss your case.