Tuesday, January 12, 2016
Court Strikes Florida's Capital Sentencing Scheme
The Supreme Court ruled today that Florida's capital sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment, because it puts in the hands of the judge, not the jury, the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty.
Florida law provides that a capital felon can only get a life sentence based on his or her conviction. But under an additional sentencing procedure, a capital felon can get death. It works like this: the judge in the additional sentencing proceeding conducts an evidentiary hearing before a jury; the jury, by majority vote, renders an "advisory sentence"; the judge then independently finds and weighs the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and enters a sentence of life or death. (The judge has to give the jury recommendation "great weight," but need not follow it.)
The Court held that this process violates the Sixth Amendment in light of Ring v. Arizona. In that case, an Arizona judge's independent factfinding exposed the defendant to a punishment greater than the jury's guilty verdict authorized. The Court struck the scheme, because under the Sixth Amendment (and Apprendi) 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.
Justice Sotomayor wrote for the Court, including all but Justices Breyer and Alito. Justice Breyer wrote a separate concurrence; Justice Alito wrote the lone dissent.
Can judges still impose the death penalty if the only additional aggravating factor considered is a prior criminal conviction per the rule of Almendarez-Torres? The court really needs to impose some consistency to their jurisprudence in this area. I get the prior crime exception in a way, because at least there was a jury finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at some point, but what about Patterson v. New York, etc.? Why can the burden of proof be reversed so long as the state phrases its criminal statutes correctly in order to make a fact a mitigating circumstance or affirmative defense rather than an element, and yet in the context of the death penalty any fact that enhances punishment must be proven to the jury under the 6th Amendment? Depending on the form of statutes rather than their substance seems inherently untenable; if the courts are supposed to impose meaningful due process limits on the ability of states to alter the proof requirements for a crime (whether by shifting the burden or taking the fact-finding function away from the jury altogether) the importance of a fact to punishment is a much better analytical framework than whether it is an “element,” an “affirmative defense,” a “mitigating factor,” or a “sentencing factor.”
Posted by: Josh | Jan 13, 2016 10:18:22 AM