EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Supreme Court Finds Florida's Death Penalty System Unconstitutional

Today, the United States Supreme Court declared Florida's death penalty system unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida. According to the Court,

First-degree murder is a capital felony in Florida....Under state law, the maximum sentence a capital felon may receive on the basis of the conviction alone is life imprisonment...."A person who has been convicted of a capital felony shall be punished by death" only if an additional sentencing proceeding "results in findings by the court that such person shall be punished by death."..."[O]therwise such person shall be punished by life imprisonment and shall be ineligible for parole."...

The additional sentencing proceeding Florida employs is a "hybrid" proceeding "in which [a] jury renders an advisory verdict but the judge makes the ultimate sentencing determinations." Ring v. Arizona, 536 U. S. 584, 608, n. 6 (2002). First, the sentencing judge conducts an evidentiary hearing before a jury....Next, the jury renders an "advisory sentence" of life or death without specifying the factual basis of its recommendation. ... "Notwithstanding the recommendation of a majority of the jury, the court, after weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, shall enter a sentence of life imprisonment or death."... If the court imposes death, it must "set forth in writing its findings upon which the sentence of death is based."...Although the judge must give the jury recommendation "great weight,"...the sentencing order must “reflect the trial judge’s independent judgment about the existence of aggravating and mitigating factors."

The Court then held that this system violates the principle enunciated in Ring, where the Court had held that a defendant has the right to have a jury, rather than a judge, decide on the existence of an aggravating factor that makes the defendant eligible for the death penalty.

According to the Court in Hurst

The analysis the Ring Court applied to Arizona’s sen- tencing scheme applies equally to Florida’s. 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....Although Florida incorporates an advisory jury verdict that Arizona lacked, we have previously made clear that this distinction is immaterial: "It is true that in Florida the jury recommends a sentence, but it does not make specific factual findings with regard to the existence of mitigating or aggravating circumstances and its recommendation is not binding on the trial judge. A Florida trial court no more has the assistance of a jury’s findings of fact with respect to sen- tencing issues than does a trial judge in Arizona."



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Surprised they did not also address the unanimity issue at the same time. Prison law libraries are working overtime this week churning out appeals and motions.

Posted by: JasonP | Jan 14, 2016 4:20:41 PM

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