SCOTUS holds Florida Capital Sentencing scheme Unconstitutional [Read Judgment]

SCOTUS holds Florida Capital Sentencing scheme Unconstitutional [Read Judgment]

The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury. This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s fact-finding, said the Court while holding the scheme unconstitutional.

Supreme Court of United States has held the Florida capital sentencing scheme which allows a sentencing judge to find an aggravating circumstance necessary for imposition of the death, independent of a jury’s fact-finding, is unconstitutional. A nine Judge Bench, by 8-1 majority, said that this law violates the Sixth Amendment which protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury.

Florida capital sentencing scheme

The scheme mandates separate sentencing proceeding to determine whether the defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. The sentence prescribed by Jury is only advisory. The relevant Statute reads ‘Notwithstanding the recommendation of a majority of the jury, the court, after weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, shall enter a sentence of life imprisonment or death, but if the court imposes a sentence of death, it shall set forth in writing its findings upon which the sentence of death is based as to the facts….”

Background

In this case, A Florida jury convicted petitioner Timothy Hurst of first-degree murder for killing a co-worker and recommended the death penalty. The court sentenced Hurst to death, but he was granted a new sentencing hearing on appeal. At resentencing, the jury again recommended death, and the judge again found the facts necessary to sentence Hurst to death. The judge based the sentence in part on her independent determination. Florida Supreme Court affirmed the sentence rejecting the argument of the convict that this capital sentencing scheme is unconstitutional. The decision of the Florida Supreme Court was made relying on SCOTUS rulings in Spaziano v. Florida and Hildwin v. Florida, wherein it was held that Sixth Amendment “does not require that the specific findings authorizing the imposition of the sentence of death be made by the jury.”

Incorporation of Advisory Jury verdict immaterial

The Court said that it was already concluded in Ring v. Arizona, capital sentencing scheme violated the Sixth amendment, because the State allowed a judge to find the facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death. Only difference between Arizona scheme which was found unconstitutional in Ring case and the Florida scheme is that the latter incorporates an advisory jury verdict. The Court held that this difference is immaterial.

Holding that the present case is similar to that in Ring case, the Court said ‘As with Timothy Ring, the maximum punishment Timothy Hurst could have received without any judge-made findings was life in prison without parole. As with Ring, a judge increased Hurst’s authorized punishment based on her own fact finding”

The Court also rejected the State of Florida’s contention that sentencing jury recommended a death sentence, it “necessarily included a finding of an aggravating circumstance.” The Court said ‘The State cannot now treat the advisory recommendation by the jury as the necessary factual finding that Ring requires.”

Spaziano v. Florida and Hildwin v. Florida overruled

The Court said conclusion reached in the Spaziano case and Hildwin case was wrong, and irreconcilable with its earlier ruling in Apprendi v. New Jersey. ‘Time and subsequent cases have washed away the logic of Spaziano and Hildwin. The decisions are overruled to the extent they allow a sentencing judge to find an aggravating circumstance, independent of a jury’s fact-finding, that is necessary for imposition of the death penalty.’, the court said.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Alito dissented with the majority judgment and said ‘it defies belief to suggest that the jury would not have found the existence of either aggravating factor if its finding was binding. More than 17 years have passed since Cynthia Harrison was brutally murdered. In the interest of bringing this protracted litigation to a close, I would rule on the issue of harmless error and would affirm the decision of the Florida Supreme Court.

Read the Judgment here.