Supreme Court Strikes Down Florida Death Sentence Process

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Florida’s process for sentencing people to death violates the constitutional rights of criminal defendants because it gives too much power to judges – and not enough to juries – to decide capital sentences.

The 8-1 ruling said that the state’s sentencing procedure is flawed because juries play only an advisory role in recommending death while the judge can reach a different decision.

The court’s ruling means inmate Timothy Hurst, 37, could be re-sentenced, potentially avoiding the death penalty sentence he received following his conviction for the 1998 murder of his manager at a fried-chicken restaurant in Pensacola.

The decision could also trigger new sentencing appeals from some of the 390 inmates on Florida’s death row, a number second only to California.

Florida’s solicitor general argued that the system was acceptable because a jury first decides if the defendant is eligible for the death penalty.

The ruling’s direct impact is largely limited to Florida and does not touch upon the bigger and more divisive question of the constitutionality of the death penalty in general.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing on behalf of the court’s majority, said the right to an impartial jury guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment «required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s fact-finding.»