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Supreme Court Invalidates Florida’s Death Penalty System

Despite growing concerns over its fairness and constitutionality, just over half of U.S. states, including Florida, still have the death penalty for those convicted of certain crimes. According to an NPR story, Florida holds the dubious distinction of being the state with the second-highest number of death row inmates, at 390. But in early January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s system for imposing that penalty, throwing into question the status of all the state’s current death sentences.

As NPR reports, in the case of Hurst v. Florida, the Supreme Court in an 8-1 decision ruled that Florida’s system of allowing a judge to override a jury’s sentencing recommendation of either death or life in prison without parole violates the U.S. Constitution. In the Hurst case, Timothy Hurst was convicted of murdering a co-worker, and, after the penalty phase of the trial, the jury recommended that he be sentenced to death. Florida law, however, required the judge to hold a separate hearing to determine whether aggravating circumstances existed to support imposing the death penalty. At this hearing the judge, and not the jury, was responsible for finding the relevant facts to support the sentence. Ultimately, the judge agreed with the jury’s recommendation.

The Supreme Court concluded that the right to a jury trial, protected by the Sixth Amendment, means that a jury, not a judge, must find every fact necessary to support a death sentence. Because Florida’s statutory scheme permits the judge to disregard the jury’s recommendation and mandates that she draw her own factual conclusions, that system is unconstitutional. In reaching this decision, the Court had to overrule its own previous opinions upholding the Florida system. NPR reports that the Court did so based upon its conclusion that the “underpinnings” of those decisions have been “eroded by time and subsequent developments in constitutional law.”

What does this decision mean for Florida’s hundreds of death row inmates? It is not clear whether the Hurst decision will apply retroactively – meaning it remains to be seen whether those sentences need to be revisited because they were imposed under a regime now found to be unconstitutional, or whether the decision will only apply to new sentences going forward. Responding to Hurst, Florida’s Lawyer General released a statement vowing to work with the state legislature on changing current death penalty statutes to comply with the Court’s decision, and declaring that decision’s impact on existing sentences will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

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