Justice

Supreme Court Declares Florida’s Death Penalty Sentencing Scheme Unconstitutional

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

The scheme Florida uses to sentence people to die is unconstitutional, according to an 8-1 decision handed down by the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

As a matter of legal doctrine, Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s opinion for the Court in Hurst v. Florida is not particularly surprising. There’s also some uncertainty about just how far this case will go to disrupt the death penalty in Florida. Nevertheless, it is a victory for opponents of the death penalty just months after the Court took an aggressively pro-execution stance last summer. Only Justice Samuel Alito dissented from Hurst.

The case involves an unusual scheme Florida uses after someone has been convicted of a crime that can potentially carry the death penalty. Like all death penalty trials in the United States, Florida divides those trials into one phase to determine if a defendant is guilty and another to determine if they should be executed. In Florida, however, the jury only renders an “advisory sentence” during the penalty phase of the trial, and the ultimate sentence is determined based on factual findings by the judge.

That violates the Sixth Amendment’s command that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” — that is, not by a judge. Indeed, the Supreme Court already held in the 2002 case Ring v. Arizona that a similar death penalty sentencing scheme in Arizona violates the Constitution. No doubt because this case so closely resembles another existing precedent, Sotomayor’s opinion is a brief ten pages.

An open question is what impact Hurst will have on other inmates currently sitting on Florida’s death row. Two years after Ring, the justices held that its Arizona decision was not retroactive to inmates whose sentences were locked in prior to the day Ring was handed down. That suggests that most Florida death row inmates will not be able to take advantage of Hurst. At the same time, however, Hurst does little more than track the Court’s 2002 decision in Ring, suggesting that inmates whose sentences were finalized after 2002 should benefit from the Court’s decision in Hurst.

Additionally, according to Florida defense attorney David Menschel, the Florida supreme court “employs a retroactivity doctrine that is broader than” the federal rule, so it is possible that Hurst could apply to the entire state’s death row.

Whatever happens to existing inmates, however, Florida will need to change its sentencing method if it wishes to continue sentencing people to die.