Supreme Court Deems Florida Death Penalty Sentencing Unconstitutional

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In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that part of the process used to confer death sentences in the State of Florida violates the Sixth Amendment on Tuesday. The ruling focuses on the state’s use of a judge, rather than a jury, to make the final determination of a death sentence and does not weigh in on the constitutionality of death sentences in general.

“The 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,” wrote Justice Sotomayor in her majority opinion. The case, Hurst v. Florida, involves Timothy Lee Hurst’s conviction for the murder of his co-worker Cynthia Harrison in 1998. The state of Florida has a unique sentencing procedure for death penalty cases, which Sotomayor argues is in violation of the Sixth Amendment.

In Florida, the maximum sentence for someone convicted of just a capital felony is life in prison. But, a death sentence may be given to a capital felon only after an additional sentencing proceeding. This process, which the Supreme Court refers to as “hybrid” sentencing, puts the final decision in the hands of the judge after a jury gives an “advisory verdict.” Although the jury provides the verdict, it does not give the factual basis for its sentencing recommendation, instead, the judge is tasked with providing the legal justification for a death sentence. Justice Sotomayor argues that under the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the “right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury,” the Florida system is unconstitutional.

Much of the reasoning in the Hurst v. Florida case comes from the court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona back in 2002. The previous Arizona sentencing system is very similar to the structure that the court stuck down in Florida, making Sotomayor’s opinion a pretty straightforward interpretation of court precedent. The Arizona sentencing process ultimately put the burden on a judge to determine whether the presence of aggravating factors justify the death penalty. The court ruled that doing so violated the Sixth Amendment and largely applied the same justification to the ruling in Hurst v. Florida.

So what does this mean going forward? In light of the ruling, two primary questions remain. First, what does this mean for all of the inmates currently on death row? And second, what changes will the state need to make to issue death sentences in the future? As Think Progress points out, the Ring V. Arizona decision did not retroactively affect prisoners who received death sentences prior to the Ring ruling. In a subsequent decision, Schriro v. Summerlin, the Supreme Court ruled that the precedent set by Ring does not apply retroactively to other Arizona inmates because it amounted to a procedural change in the law, not a substantive one. Based on that precedent, the court’s recent ruling in Hurst will likely not affect previous cases.

However, there is some evidence to suggest that the ruling may, in fact, be retroactive. As NPR notes, retroactivity is also a matter of state law and the Florida Supreme Court uses a more generous application of retroactivity than most states. It is important to note that Florida has the second highest number of inmates currently on death row, making the question of retroactivity particularly important for the state.

In the wake of the ruling, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi issued the following statement:

In light of today’s United States Supreme Court decision holding Florida’s capital sentencing procedure unconstitutional, the state will need to make changes to its death-sentencing statutes. I will work with state lawmakers this legislative session to ensure that those changes comply with the Court’s latest decision. The impact of the Court’s ruling on existing death sentences will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Based on Bondi’s statement, there is some possibility that the ruling could apply retroactively, but it seems clear that Florida will need to amend or pass a new law in order to issue future death sentences.

Kevin Rizzo
Kevin Rizzo is the Crime in America Editor at Law Street Media. An Ohio Native, the George Washington University graduate is a founding member of the company. Contact Kevin at



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