In an undeniable victory for anti-death penalty activists, the US Supreme Court has ruled that Florida’s capital punishment system is unconstitutional. The decision came with a vote of 8-1, with Justice Samuel Alito being the sole dissenter.
Why did the Supreme Court object to Florida’s death penalty? In reality, Hurst v. Florida dealt with the southern state’s rather unusual and contentious method of sentencing, in cases where capital punishment is sought, rather than the executions themselves. Whereas most states require a separate trial requiring a unanimous jury decision before sentencing someone to death row, Florida is one of just three states (the others being Alabama and Delaware) which doesn’t quite operate this way.
In this particular case, Timothy Lee Hurst was convicted by a Florida jury of murdering his manager in 1998. After conviction, having been recommended for death row, Hurst faced a sentencing trial. The jury did not come to an unanimous decision; voting 7-5, the majority favored Hurst’s execution.
In Florida, however, the jury’s vote serves nothing more than a suggestion, and in this case, the judge chose to sentence Hurst to death – in practice, judge’s make the final call. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing the majority opinion, says this practice violates the Sixth Amendment by circumventing the requirement that a juries retain the power to impose sentencing. “Mere recommendation is not enough,” Sotomayor argues.
In cases involving a particularly heinous crimes, capital punishment, when it is applicable, may be sought. When a defendant, after being sentenced, goes to the sentencing trial, the jury must weigh specific aggravating factors, as they’re known. In Hurst’s trial in Florida, there were two such aggravating factors. Because of the special power Florida judges have in sentencing trials, however, there arises the possibility he or she may be weighing those factors differently than a jury might. Justice Sotomayor explains that this system could result in conflicting outcomes and further undermines a jury’s power.
As capital punishment is typically viewed as an Eighth Amendment issue, using the Sixth Amendment to (if nothing else) reign in the way the nation’s second largest death row is filled is an unusual victory for activists.
And with the US Supreme Court ruling coming less than two weeks into 2016, it is possible the year has more legal victories for death row abolitionists in store. 2015 hit a 24-year low for executions and death penalty sentences in the United States, along with several states doing away with the practices altogether, including the rather conservative Nebraska.
Four more cases relating to capital punishment have already been heard by the US Supreme Court but the rulings remain to be issued.
Three of them come out of Kansas, where Sidney Gleason, Reginald Carr and his brother, Jonathan Carr, had their sentences overturned by the Kansas Supreme Court. That ruling was the result of claims that the juries involved in the three men’s sentencing trials were not made aware of the fact that mitigating circumstances – factors that may justify mercy – did not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Foster v. Chatman revolves around the sentencing of Timothy Foster, a black Georgia man who was placed on death row for murder in 1987. Last year Foster’s lawyers gained access to notes made by the prosecution during the original sentencing trial nearly two decades ago. They found that the all-white jury was not selected by accident – all black potential jurors were dismissed, with prosecutor notes identifying them by race. The US Supreme Court will evaluate whether racial bias was involved in Foster’s sentencing.
One more case pertaining to capital punishment is on the US Supreme Court’s docket, but it remains to be heard. In Williams v. Pennsylvania, lawyers for Terrance Williams, convicted of murder in 1984, say their client was not given a fair trial as he sought an appeal of his death row conviction. They argue that Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille should have recused himself from that trial, as he was the Philadelphia District Attorney at the time of Williams’ original conviction. There are also claims Castille withheld important case details from the sentencing jury.
Though 2016 isn’t likely to see the demise of capital punishment in the United States, if recent years and the US Supreme Court’s 8-1 ruling on Florida’s system are any indication, then more victories can be expected.