Tuesday, January 12, 2016
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.