Hurst v. Florida – Death Penalty Under Scrutiny by U.S. Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court is taking a close look at the death penalty with Hurst v. Florida, which raises questions about the jury’s role in these gravely serious cases. jail2

Specifically, the court has been asked to consider the validity of Florida law, which limits the power of the jury in death penalty cases, raising issues under both the Sixth and Eighth Amendments. Oral arguments in the case were heard in October and a decision is pending.

The case involves death-penalty sentencing of a man deemed guilty of murdering a co-worker at a fast-food restaurant in 1998. Defense attorneys argued on appeal that jurors failed to consider properly the fact defendant suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and was thus intellectually disabled. However, the Court decided to narrow the issue it would consider, which was the way defendant was sentenced to death under Florida law.

Defendant was 19-years-old when it was alleged he taped the hands and mouth of the assistant manager before stabbing her more than 60 times with a box cutter. He then reportedly slit her throat, left her in the restaurant freezer, stole $1,000 and fled.

Our Miami criminal defense attorneys note Florida is the only state that allows a jury to find existence of aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt and to recommend a death sentence by a majority vote. Although it seems unlikely this could be a case that results in overturning of the death penalty, some have speculated this could be a significant challenge to the controversial punishment.

The Eighth Amendment has a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, which many have argued applies to the death penalty in general and to defendants with mental illness in particular. The Sixth Amendment guarantees a speedy public trial by an impartial jury of one’s peers.

Defendant in this case was found guilty in 2000. Jurors deemed him eligible for the death penalty in an 11-1 vote, and he was sentenced to die. The Florida Supreme Court weighed the sentencing element and ruled the trial court needed to rehear the issue. At that time, defense lawyers argued their client was disqualified from the death penalty due to his purported disability. Jurors still voted 7-5 for the death penalty. That recommendation went to a judge, who sentenced defendant to die.

A 2002 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Ring v. Arizona held that jurors – not judges – should be the ones to determine whether a person legally qualifies for capital punishment.

In most other states, death penalty cases are a three-step process: A finding of guilt, a finding beyond reasonable doubt that defendant qualifies for the death penalty and then sentencing – all of which is decided by a jury. Many states require a unanimous jury vote to recommend death. Here, the jury vote didn’t specify which factors they based the decision for qualifying defendant for death. U.S. Supreme Court precedent has required that specific aggravating factors be indicated in death penalty cases. Here, it was up to the judge to make that call.

In affirmation of that sentence, the Florida Supreme Court declined to apply Ring, and that’s likely why the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take on the ruling, legal analysts say.

Contact the Miami criminal defense lawyers at Jacobs Keeley at (305) 358-7991 for a confidential consultation on your pending criminal matter.

Additional Resources:

Eighth and Sixth Amendments Loom Over Justices’ Struggles With Sentencing, Oct. 14, 2015, By Marcia Coyle, National Law Journal

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