Because this is a death penalty case, the decision in this case will have no direct relevance to Wisconsin practice. The decision may, however, be of interest if it says anything new about a defendant’s right to have a jury decide the facts necessary to justify a sentence enhancement. To explain why that might happen, here’s some background on the case.
Ring extended Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), to death penalty cases. Apprendi, of course, 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 if punished according to 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, as opposed to some lesser penalty, may be imposed. Unlike the Arizona scheme struck down in Ring, where the judge made the factual findings necessary to impose death, Florida law vests some fact-finding functions in the jury. The questions raised by Hurst’s challenge to his death sentence are whether Florida’s process is good enough to satisfy Apprendi.
In particular, does the jury have to be unanimous in its recommendation of the death sentence? Hurst’s jury wasn’t; they voted 7 to 5 for death, the bare majority needed under state law. And, do the jurors have to be unanimous on which aggravating factor or factors are present? Under Florida law, the penalty-phase jury is not required to make specific factual findings as to the aggravating circumstances, making it possible there may not even be majority agreement that the same aggravating factor applied. Finally, Hurst claimed he was mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). Under Florida law, the jury isn’t instructed on, and doesn’t make a decision about, mental retardation; that’s left to the judge. Hurst argues that whether the defendant is mentally retarded should be a jury question. (Thus the reference to the Eighth Amendment as well as the Sixth in the question presented).