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SCOTUS: Jury, not judge, must decide whether to impose death penalty

Hurst v. Florida, USSC No. 14-7505, 2016 WL 112683 (January 12, 2016); reversing and remanding Hurst v. State, 147 So.3d 435 (Fla. 2014); Scotusblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

In Florida the jury makes a recommendation as to whether to impose the death penalty, but the judge then holds a separate sentencing hearing and decides whether there are sufficient aggravating circumstances to justify the death penalty. This sentencing scheme is unconstitutional because “[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” (Slip op. at 1).

This case is governed by Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), which applied Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), to death penalty cases. Apprendi held that the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to make findings of sentencing factors that expose a defendant to a penalty that exceeds the maximum he would receive based on the facts reflected in the jury verdict alone. Thus, under Ring, capital defendants are entitled to a jury determination of any fact on which the death penalty may be imposed. The Florida process doesn’t provide that:

The analysis the Ring Court applied to Arizona’s sentencing scheme applies equally to Florida’s. Like Arizona at the time of Ring, Florida does not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty. Rather, Florida requires a judge to find these facts. …. Although Florida incorporates an advisory jury verdict that Arizona lacked, we have previously made clear that this distinction is immaterial: “It is true that in Florida the jury recommends a sentence, but it does not make specific factual findings with regard to the existence of mitigating or aggravating circumstances and its recommendation is not binding on the trial judge. A Florida trial court no more has the assistance of a jury’s findings of fact with respect to sentencing issues than does a trial judge in Arizona.” Walton v. Arizona, 497 U. S. 639, 648 (1990); accord, State v. Steele, 921 So. 2d 538, 546 (Fla. 2005) (“[T]he trial court alone must make detailed findings about the existence and weight of aggravating circumstances; it has no jury findings on which to rely”).

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 factfinding. In light of Ring, we hold that Hurst’s sentence violates the Sixth Amendment. (Slip op. at 5-6).

The Court remands the case for a determination of whether the error was harmless in light of the fact the jury recommended the death penalty, and would clearly recommend it in any new penalty proceeding. (Slip op. at 10).

Justice Breyer concurs; he believes the Eighth Amendment is the source for the requirement that the jury, not the judge, impose the death penalty. (Concur. at 1). Justice Alito dissents, saying Florida’s system differs from the one struck down in Ring and, in any event, any error was harmless. (Dissent at 1-5).

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