The United States Supreme Court today held in Hurst v. Florida that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme is unconstitutional because it does not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty. Because Alabama has the same sentencing scheme as Florida, the Court’s decision will apply to cases in Alabama as well.
A Florida jury convicted Timothy Hurst of murdering his co-worker and then, by a 7-5 vote, recommended a death sentence. In accordance with Florida law, the judge held a separate hearing and determined that sufficient aggravating circumstances existed to justify imposing the death penalty. The judge then sentenced Mr. Hurst to death.
Justice Sotomayor wrote the decision for the Court, which held that Florida’s scheme violates the Sixth Amendment’s requirement that a jury, not a judge, must find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. Because a Florida jury’s recommendation is only advisory and may be overruled by the trial judge, who alone makes the findings necessary to impose death, the “jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”
“The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury,” the Court explained. “This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s factfinding. Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional.”
Justice Alito dissented, but acknowledged that the Court’s opinion today had the effect of “striking down Florida’s capital sentencing system.”
Like Florida, Alabama permits elected judges to overrule a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence and instead impose the death penalty. While no Florida judge has overruled a jury recommendation of a life sentence for more than 15 years, Alabama judges have overridden life recommendations 101 times since 1976, including 26 since 2000.