June 01, 2015

Supreme Court to Review Constitutionality of Florida’s Death Penalty Scheme

On March 9, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a petition for writ of certiorari filed by Timothy Lee Hurst, a Florida inmate who was sentenced to death by a judge following a non-unanimous jury recommendation.

The jury in Mr. Hurst’s case recommended a death sentence by a vote of seven to five. In Florida, a jury can only recommend the death penalty if the State proves at least one statutory aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt; however, a judge has the power to impose the death penalty even if the jury recommends a lesser sentence. Neither the jury’s finding of aggravating factors nor the recommendation of a death sentence needs to be unanimous, and there is no requirement that even a majority of jurors are in agreement about the existence of any given factor. Florida’s sentencing scheme is unique in the United States. All other jurisdictions that impose the death penalty require either a unanimous jury decision or that jurors agree on the existence of specific aggravating factors, or both. And only Florida, Alabama, and Delaware permit a judge to override a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence in favor of death.

In Mr. Hurst’s case, the jury was asked to consider two potential aggravating factors: (1) that the murder was committed during the commission of a robbery and (2) that the murder was “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” Although a bare majority of the jurors voted to impose a death sentence, the actual vote for each aggravating factor is unknown because Florida law prohibits polling the jury about aggravating circumstances. It is possible, therefore, that there was no majority vote for either individual aggravator in Mr. Hurst’s case. The trial judge made his own findings on the aggravating factors and imposed a death sentence.

On appeal, Mr. Hurst argued that Florida’s sentencing scheme violates the Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona, which held that aggravating factors must be decided by a jury. The only exception to this rule is when the aggravating factor at issue is a defendant’s prior violent felony conviction, which may be determined by a judge. Numerous other Florida prisoners have brought similar challenges to Florida’s death penalty system, but these have all been rejected by the state and federal courts and denied review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Hurst’s case is the first such case to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the Supreme Court does not provide its reasons for granting or denying review of a case, Mr. Hurst’s case was unusual in an important way. Unlike many others who had sought review of this issue from the high court, Mr. Hurst does not have any prior violent felony convictions. Therefore, he can argue that, pursuant to Ring, any possible aggravating factor that could have made him eligible for the death penalty should have been found by a jury, not a judge.

The ABA filed an amicus brief in support of Mr. Hurst. ABA policy calls for unanimous jury decisions in all criminal cases, including capital cases. In capital cases, the policy specifically calls for a unanimous jury decision regarding aggravating factors. Underlying the ABA’s position is the belief in the importance of the American jury system and its role in ensuring that death sentences are not imposed unfairly or arbitrarily.

The Court will hear the case on October 13, 2015. If Mr. Hurst is successful, the decision has the potential to impact many of the more than 400 prisoners on Florida’s death row.