SCOTUS Declares Capital Punishment Laws in Florida Unconstitutional

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In a nearly unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday, Jan. 12 that the capital punishment sentencing system in Florida is unconstitutional. The court’s decision stems from the fact that Florida’s peculiar process gives more power to judges than juries in death penalty cases.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion, stating that, “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”

According to Florida state law, the jury did not need to be unanimous when recommending the death penalty, and the judge didn’t need to follow that decision even if they were. Eight of the Supreme Court judges concurred with this decision; only Justice Samuel Alito disagreed.

In his dissenting opinion Justice Alito cited the previous two decisions of the Supreme Court to uphold Florida’s capital punishment sentencing laws. “Once the jury has made this decision, the trial court performs what amounts, in practical terms, to a reviewing function,” wrote Alito.  Although the Judge may then impose a different sentence Alito says “the judge must accord the jury’s recommendation “great weight.”

The court’s ruling was in favor of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of murdering his manager, Cynthia Harrison, at the Popeye’s restaurant they both worked at in 1998. This ends 17 years of trials for Hurst, whose case will return to the lower courts for resentencing. However, it is unclear how this decision will affect the other, nearly 400, inmates that Florida has on death row.

This is an undoubtedly controversial decision, as any decision in favor of any inmates deemed dangerous enough for death row might be. Yet, the Constitution has a process that the Supreme Court seeks to uphold, and they felt that Florida circumvented that process with its sentencing laws.

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