U.S. Supreme Court to Review Constitutionality of Some Death Penalty Sentencing Procedures


The United States Supreme Court yesterday decided to review whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme is unconstitutional.

In 2002, the Court held in Ring v. Arizona that if a defendant’s punishment, including a death sentence, is “contingent on the finding of a fact, that fact – no matter how the State labels it – must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Court granted review in Hurst v. Florida to determine if Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme violates Ring because it allows judges, not juries, to find the aggravating factors that are necessary to impose a death sentence.

Lawyers for Timothy Hurst, who is intellectually disabled, also argue that Florida’s scheme violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on arbitrary and unreliable sentencing in death penalty cases by imposing death sentences based on non-unanimous jury votes. Mr. Hurst was sentenced to death based on a 7-5 vote. “By far, most of the states that have a death penalty require juries to unanimously vote for that punishment,” his lawyers stated in their petition for review.

Like Florida, Alabama allows death sentences based on non-unanimous jury votes. Both states’ highest courts have refused to find that the Ring decision requires any changes to their state sentencing schemes and have upheld death sentences in cases where the jury did not make the fact-findings required to impose the death penalty.

In fact, Florida and Alabama permit elected judges to overrule a jury’s decision to sentence a defendant to life without parole and instead impose the death penalty. But Florida has not imposed a death sentence by override since 1999, while Alabama judges have overridden life verdicts 101 times since 1976, including 26 since 2000.

Hurst v. Florida, No. 14-7505, will be argued and decided in the Court’s next term, which starts in October.