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Excerpt: "The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Florida's unique system for sentencing people to death is unconstitutional because it gives too much power to judges - and not enough to juries - to decide capital sentences."

A gurney used for executions. (photo: AP)
A gurney used for executions. (photo: AP)

US Supreme Court: Florida Death Penalty System Is Unconstitutional

By Sam Hananel, Associated Press

12 January 16


y a vote of 8-1 the U.S. Supreme Court today declared Florida's death penalty statute unconstitutional, concluding that it gave judges too much power.

Juries — not judges — should make the final decision in whether a defendant should be executed, wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Under Florida's current system, a judge makes the final decision after a 12-member jury has listened to evidence and made a recommendation.

However, that recommendation need not be unanimous, something often criticized by death-penalty opponents.

The high court released its opinion mid-morning. Legislative leaders in Tallahassee were expected to weigh in on what to do — revise the current statute or abandon the death penalty altogether — later in the day.

There are currently 390 inmates on Florida's death row. The Department of Corrections had no immediate response to the ruling. Neither did Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

The case that up-ended Florida's death penalty statute involved Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of murdering his boss at a Popeye's restaurant in Pensacola in 1998. The jury voted 7-5 in favor of death, and a judge imposed the death sentence.

Under Florida law, the judge — not the jury —must enumerate each specific reason that a defendant deserves to be executed. The statute includes a list of them. They're called "aggravators." One example is witness elimination, i.e. a defendant killed someone specifically to make sure there'd be no witness.

But Sotomayor wrote that is an assignment that should fall on the jury.

"The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant's right to an impartial jury," Sotomayor wrote. "This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst's death sentence on a jury's verdict, not a judge's factfinding."

The only justice opposed the ruling was Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote a dissent, saying that under Florida's sentencing scheme, a trial judge merely formalizes a decision already made by the jury.

The high court ordered the case back to the Florida Supreme Court, which had earlier rejected Hurst's appeal 4-3, and instructed it to revise its ruling.

Florida is one of only three states that does not require a unanimous jury verdict when sentencing someone to death. The others are Alabama and Delaware.

In Tallahassee, Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, is sponsoring a bill which would require a unanimous jury vote in death penalty cases.

"For decades we've known that there are problems with our capital sentencing scheme," Rodriguez said. Today's decision "means we can fix our death penalty if the political will is there."

Even though the Hurst case was pending before the high court, Florida carried out two executions: Jerry Correll on Oct. 29 and Oscar Ray Bolin on Jan. 7.

Correll's attorneys had asked the Florida Supreme Court to stay his execution until the high court ruled on Hurst, but it denied the request on Oct. 19.

A jury recommended death for Correll by a vote of 9-3 in 1985, court records show. your social media marketing partner
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