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SCOTUS: Florida’s Death Sentencing System Is Unconstitutional

On Behalf of | Jan 13, 2016 | Violent Crimes

The Supreme Court of the United States handed down a historic decision yesterday in Hurst v. Florida, a case that has already created major shockwaves in our state’s criminal justice system, calling into question the fate of nearly 390 men and women currently sitting on death row.

Here, the underlying issue in Hurst was whether Florida’s death sentencing system is constitutional.

For those unfamiliar with how it works, state law dictates that juries in capital murder cases must recommend either a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole or a sentence of death. However, the ultimate determination rests in the hands of the presiding judge, who can engage in independent fact-finding and even disregard the recommendation made by the jury.

In Hurst, the jury voted 7-5 to recommend that the defendant be sentenced to death for the murder of his co-worker back in 1998, but neglected to articulate any aggravating factors. Thereafter, the presiding judge sentenced the defendant to death after determining via an independent fact-finding inquiry that at least two aggravating factors were present.

In a groundbreaking 8-1 decision, SCOTUS reversed the death sentence, holding that Florida’s death sentencing system was unconstitutional.

Specifically, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that a “mere [advisory jury] recommendation is not enough” and that the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial “requires a jury and not a judge to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”

The decision was based in part on a 2002 case, in which the nation’s high court struck down a similar death sentencing system in Arizona.

The case has now been remanded to the Florida Supreme Court, which experts say will be tasked with not only deciding whether the death sentence in Hurst can be upheld on other grounds, but also whether the decision should apply retroactively given that SCOTUS declined to apply it as such. At a minimum, they are expecting a temporary halt to all executions in the Sunshine State.

Stay tuned for updates …

If you’ve are under investigation or have been charged with any sort of violent crime, consider contacting an experienced legal professional as soon as possible as your freedom and your future is at stake.