Hurst v. Florida – The Slow Death of the Death Penalty

On Jan. 7, 2016, a man named Oscar Ray Bolin Jr. was executed by the state for the murders of three South Florida women in the mid-1980s. The U.S. Supreme Court had declined to hear his final appeal in a final effort to save his life. Among the arguments his lawyers had made: The court’s pending decision in Hurst v. Florida, weighing the constitutionality of Florida’s death penalty scheme. needle1

Five days after Bolin was put to death, the Hurst decision was released. The high court declared Florida’s jury-recommended death penalty system unconstitutional. It didn’t come in time to save Bolin, but it may just be the beginning of the end for the death penalty.

In 2015, there were 28 prisoners in the U.S. put to death. That was the lowest number of prisoners executed since 1991, and evidence from the Death Penalty Information Center suggests this is part of a larger trend involving a sharp decline of death penalty cases. 

There are a number of different factors. First and foremost, since 1973 there have been 156 people on death row exonerated. That’s nearly four a year. Then there is also the growing recognition that the death penalty is applied in a classist, racist fashion. There have also been numerous instances in which states have executed inmates who were mentally disabled.

On top of all that, there are the practical implications: The drugs needed for executions – those that would allow for a “humane” death – are extremely tough to obtain. The European Union restricts export of drugs used in executions, and last year, three states were caught trying to import the lethal cocktails illegally. There have also been a number of high-profile cases in which prisoners took a very long time to die and the deaths were very dramatic. In one case, a man writhed on a gurney for 43 minutes after having been injected with deadly drugs. In another, a prisoner cried out in pain that, “It feels like acid” and “My body is on fire.”

Despite the heinous actions of which these individuals are accused, our Miami defense attorneys know the American people are increasingly critical of the system that allows such state-sanctioned cruelty. Opinion polls suggest public support for capital punishment is as low as it’s been in 40 years.

In total last year, 49 new death penalty sentences were handed down. That is the fewest since 1973.

In the Hurst case, what was specifically at issue is the way the court system in this state decides whether a criminal convict should die.

What the U.S. Supreme Court took issue with in an 8-1 ruling is the way in which judges are given more power than juries to implement the death sentence. Historically, juries recommend aggravating factors to justify the death penalty, but the decision is ultimately up to the judge. The high court ruled this puts the judge in a role that is central, singular and “improper.”

The case in question involved a man who was convicted of fatally stabbing a co-worker nearly two decades ago.

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

Additional Resources:

Hurst v. Florida, Jan. 12, 2015, U.S. Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Hurst v. Florida – Death Penalty Under Scrutiny by U.S. Supreme Court, Dec. 15, 2015, Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog