Hurst v. Florida: Florida’s death penalty unconstitutional

Today the Supreme Court issued its decision in Hurst v. Florida.  The question there was whether Florida’s death penalty procedure violates the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of trial by jury, where a judge conducts an evidentiary hearing on sentencing, a jury renders an advisory sentence of life or death, and then the trial court weighs aggravators and mitigators and determines whether to follow the jury’s advisory sentence.  According to the Court today, the Sixth Amendment requires that a jury, not a judge, conclusively find every fact necessary for imposing a death sentence.  “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough” to satisfy the Sixth Amendment, the Court said.

In light of the Court’s previous Sixth Amendment cases – beginning with Apprendi v. New Jersey and including Ring v. Arizona – this is an unsurprising decision.  What is surprising is that it took this long for the Court to decide it and that Florida did not change its law after Ring.  Yet because Florida’s capital sentencing scheme is unlike most others, this decision will have little practical impact on the death penalty nationwide.  It will, however, require legislative movement in Florida.  I hope Florida moves expeditiously to fix this constitutional defect and get its death penalty into compliance with Hurst.

Timothy Hurst may get a new sentencing proceeding (the Court left open the question of harmless error).  It is important, then, to recount what he did.  Hurst was convicted and sentenced to death for the May 1998 murder of Cynthia Harrison.  Her body was found in a freezer at the Popeye’s restaurant where she and Hurst worked.  The Court described that she was “bound, gagged, and stabbed over 60 times. ” The safe was found unlocked and the previous day’s receipts plus $375 were missing.  The State connected Hurst to the murder through forensic evidence and through witnesses who said that Hurst planned the steal money from the place and that he and Harrison were the only ones scheduled to work on the night of the murder.  The same kind of electrical tape that was used to bind Harrison was found in Hurst’s car.  A box cutter found near Harrison’s body was of the same kind that Hurst had been seen with only days before the murder.  A friend of Hurst’s testified that Hurst confessed to killing Harrison.  Hurst also confessed to another friend, who washed Hurst’s blood-stained pants and discarded his blood-stained shoes and socks.  This and additional evidence linking Hurst to the crime can be found in the Florida Supreme Court’s opinion at 147 So.3d 425 (Fla. 2014).

The broader question now is whether Hurst applies retroactively to the 400 or so folks on Florida’s death row who were sentenced under this law.  Ring did not apply retroactively.  See Schriro v. Summerlin.  I have questions about Hurst’s retroactivity, as well, at least in federal court.



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