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Florida's Death Penalty Scheme is Unconstitutional ... Now What?

Just recently the U.S. Supreme Court released its decision in Hurst v. Florida and declared that the system whereby a criminal defendant is sentenced to death in Florida is unconstitutional. The appeal was filed by Timothy Lee Hurst, a criminal defendant convicted in 1998 of murdering the manager of the Popeye’s chicken restaurant at which Mr. Hurst worked. At Mr. Hurst’s trial, the jury voted 7 to 5 in recommending the death penalty to the judge. Despite the close split, the judge in Mr. Hurst’s case imposed the death penalty.

What did SCOTUS Find Wrong With Florida’s Scheme?

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) voted 8-1 – a rather rare sign of unity in a court that can be sometimes bitterly divided along partisan lines – that Florida’s death penalty scheme did not pass constitutional muster. Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor found that trial judges had too much discretion in deciding whether to impose the death penalty in a particular case. A trial judge could reweigh the factors considered by the jury and come to the opposite recommendation of the jury or consider a factor not considered by the jury at all. The Court found that the jury’s recommendation that death should be imposed is not enough: a jury must instead find every fact necessary to impose death in order for a death sentence to be declared constitutionally sound. The Hurst decision overrules previous decisions that had upheld the constitutionality of Florida’s death penalty scheme.

Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter and argued that the judge’s role in a Florida death penalty case was simply to review the deliberations and considerations of the jury.

What Does This Mean for Criminal Defendants?

For current death-row inmates, it is questionable how much – if any – impact the Hurst decision will have. The Hurst decision was based on an earlier Arizona case in which the Court held its ruling was not retroactive. This means that an inmate sentenced to death who had already exhausted all of his or her appeal rights would not be entitled to a new sentencing hearing. Besides, although three of Florida’s current death row inmates were sentenced to death against the recommendation of a jury, no death row inmate in Florida had been sentenced to death over the jury’s recommendation since 1999.

For current and future defendants, however, Hurst has significant implications. Unless Florida amends its death penalty statutes and requires a jury to make specific findings of aggravating factors that support a sentence of death and mitigating factors that suggest a sentence of life imprisonment is more appropriate, along with a finding that the aggravating factors outweigh any mitigating factors.

When you are charged with a serious or capital offense in Florida, it is important to have legal counsel representing you who is familiar with new legal developments that affect your rights. Jeffrey S. Weiner has represented criminal defendants in South Florida and throughout the Sunshine State for years and is committed to providing his clients with dedicated and aggressive counsel and representation based on the latest developments in the law. Contact his office today and schedule a free initial consultation. You can reach the office of Jeffrey S. Weiner, P.A. by calling (305) 670-9919 or contacting the office online.

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