FLORIDA DEATH PENALTY STATUTE STRUCK DOWN
SUMMARY OF FACTS
On May 2, 1998, Cynthia Harrison’s body was found in a freezer of the Popeye’s Fried Chicken restaurant where she worked in Escambia County, Florida. She was bound, gagged, and stabbed over 60 times–likely with a box cutter. (click here for the facts surrounding the murder.) Police arrested her co-worker, Timothy Lee Hurst, and charged him with first-degree murder. A jury then found him guilty of murder. Hurst was then sentenced to death by a trial judge under Florida’s hybrid-sentencing scheme.
Under Florida’s death penalty statute, a jury only issues an advisory verdict or recommendation on whether a defendant should get life imprisonment or the death penalty. But the trial judge, rather than the jury, makes the final determination on whether a defendant should get life imprisonment or receive the death penalty.
[Note–Hurst’s original death penalty sentence was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court for reasons unrelated to this blog post. At re-sentencing, Hurst again was sentenced to death by the trial judge rather than the jury.]
Whether a defendant’s Sixth Amendment Right to a jury trial allows a trial judge, rather than a jury, to make the factual determinations to support a death sentence?
Court said a jury, and not a judge, must decide whether a defendant gets the death penalty. It then struck down Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme.
WHAT THIS RULING MEANS:
It means that Florida’s death penalty statute is unconstitutional. The Florida legislature must rework its death penalty statute to allow a jury—rather than a judge—to make ultimate determination on whether a defendant receives the death penalty.
What is unclear is whether other defendants who are already sentenced to death and awaiting execution in Florida will be eligible for relief. Click here for a New York Times article on this issue. Also, click here for a discussion from ScotusBlog on this case.
ODDS AND ENDS:
An issue that was raised but not decided in this case is whether a death penalty verdict must be unanimous. That is—whether all 12 jurors must agree—or if only 10 of the 12 jurors must agree. That’s an interesting question too.
GENARO R. CORTEZ