Who gets to decide who lives and who dies (by the death penalty)? If you recall, this is in a way the question that the Supreme Court addressed in Hurst v. Florida – a death penalty case from the state. Florida’s death penalty system allows a judge to skirt around a jury’s non-binding recommendation in the sentencing phase of the trial. But under the Constitution, who gets to decide the sentence? The jury or the judge?
In the course of a robbery of the restaurant at which he worked, Timothy Lee Hurst murdered his co-worker at a local Popeyes. The jury at Hurst’s trial unanimously declared him guilty and then, in a second sentencing decision, voted by a 7-to-5 margin to give him the death penalty. As a part of their decision, the jury had to find “aggravating factors ” that made Hurst eligible for the death penalty. The jury is given the task of finding those aggravating factors to reasonably give the defendant the death penalty (in this case, the crime was especially heinous and it happened in the course of a robbery). The judge, citing a different aggravating factor, sentenced Hurst with the death penalty.
Florida’s death penalty system is different from most other states’. In Florida, the jury recommends a sentence to the judge, the jury doesn’t have to find the same aggravating factor (meaning some can find one, some can find another, but they all don’t have to agree), the judge is required to find aggravating factors (usually that duty is given just to the jury) and, unlike every other state in the country, the vote on a death penalty sentence doesn’t have to be unanimous. In Hurst’s case, for instance, it was 7-5. Hurst appealed the decision.
The Florida Supreme Court argued that they did not have to follow Ring v. Arizona, a 2002 Supreme Court case that concluded a judge finding an aggravating factor over a jury was a violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment Rights. (Ring was the result of Apprendi, a 2000 decision which found that a jury has the responsibility of making findings that increase the maximum of a sentence – i.e. the death penalty – not the judge.) In taking up the case, the Supreme Court changed the question of the case to determining if Florida’s death sentence procedure violates the Sixth or Eighth Amendments, specifically in light of the Ring decision.
In its defense, Florida argued that the Supreme Court has reviewed the state’s capital punishment system four times, never finding it violated the constitution. They also argue that Ring did not mandate the jury’s authority in capital sentencing decision–only in the decision to find the defendant eligible for the death penalty; the judge can make the more consequential decision.
In the oral argument, the justices seemed to agree with Seth Waxman, Hurst’s lawyer, and even asked him hypotheticals on Florida’s capital punishment scheme. Florida Solicitor General Allen Winsor, who defended the state at the Court, faced a barrage of questions asking about the jury’s true role in the sentencing process. The jury has an important role, Winsor argued, but it became increasingly evident that that role was not important enough to satisfy the standard under Ring.
Justice Scalia dove into the moral question that defined the Sixth Amendment. Asking Winsor if the jury knew that they didn’t have the final say, Scalia indicated the strength of his commitment to the Sixth Amendment. If the jury didn’t think its judgment mattered as much (because it could be ignored by the judge), the jury wouldn’t feel the necessary responsibility they ought to have under that amendment.
In a 8-1 decision written by Justice Sotomayor, the Supreme Court invalidated Florida’s death penalty system. Citing their decision in Ring, which ruled that juries, not a judge, had to do the fact-finding necessary to give the death penalty, the Court ruled that Florida’s death penalty system violated the Sixth Amendment’s protection of the right to a trial by jury. Sotomayor’s decision argued that Florida’s system was similar to Arizona’s pre-Ring in that it didn’t require the jury to make the relevant factual findings. Whether the judge had to take the jury’s recommendation into account made no difference, Sotomayor said.
Sotomayor’s decision, which will expand the Sixth Amendment slightly (see below), was joined by Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Kagan, making the decision a bipartisan one. Justice Breyer filed a concurring opinion, but he disagreed with the way the justices got to their opinion. Rather than focus on the Sixth Amendment, Breyer argued, we should focus on the Eighth’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The ability for a judge to decide to impose the death penalty, Breyer said, is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, giving a faux authority to the jury as a facade of a constitutional trial. Still, Breyer agrees with the majority’s end point and, thus, voted to reverse the Florida Supreme Court’s decision.
Justice Alito, the sole dissenter, outlined the differences between Ring and Hurst, and argued that the two were dissimilar. In Ring, Alito argued, the jury had no responsibility for the capital sentencing process. Florida’s system, however, casts the jury as responsible for the fact-finding in the capital sentencing procedure, but not the sentencing itself. Plus, since judges must give “great weight” to the jury’s opinion, it’s rare the judge would bypass the jury’s recommendation. Of course, Alito ignores that this has happened before, but for Alito that is irrelevant.
The ruling is narrow for two reasons. First, there are other issues that the opinion did not address that were raised in the oral argument. Primarily among those is the debate over whether the jury must have a unanimous vote in capital sentencing cases. While two other states also feature death penalty systems where a unanimous jury isn’t a requirement, Florida is the only state to allow a simple majority of 7-5. Second, because of Florida law that prevents further litigation after a final stage of the death sentence process, a number of criminal defendants who were sentenced to death unfairly under the regime will not be able to avoid their fate.
Nevertheless, Hurst v. Florida is a step forward for the Sixth Amendment, and perhaps a brick in the road to the abolition of the death penalty.