The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the process used to condemn a death row inmate in Florida was unconstitutional. The ruling was passed Tuesday.
The reason behind the ruling is that a judge is the final arbiter of fact in sentencing, rather than a jury. This opens the door to further challenge death penalty cases in Florida and other states.
385 men and 5 women are currently on death row in Florida. The decision could open the door to other sentencing challenges for these individuals who represent more than 10% of the nation’s convicts awaiting execution, numbered at 3,000 approximately.
37-year-old Timothy Lee Hurst, a death row inmate who is convicted of murdering Cynthia Harrison, a restaurant co-worker in 1998, filed a challenge which resulted in the 8-1 ruling.
Hurst was recommended a death sentence by a jury, but it was a judge who held a separate hearing and determined that there were sufficient aggravating circumstances to impose the death penalty.
The following was stated in the ruling: “We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional. The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s recommendation is not enough.”
As a result of the order, Hurst’s case was sent to the Florida Supreme Court for further proceedings.
The ruling could lead to legal challenges in other states, particularly in Alabama and Delaware. Some decisions of the death sentencing procedures are delegated to judges in these states, instead of the jury.
Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, said, “This shows that the Supreme Court continues to apply close scrutiny to the death penalty. I think it’s really a harbinger of the day coming when the Supreme Court is going to strike it down.”
Legal analyst Mark McBride, who is a criminal defense attorney in California, said the Florida Supreme Court will very soon order that “prisoners who had been sentenced under the current, albeit flawed, scheme will have their sentences commuted to life without the possibility of parole.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, in turn, “will now be occupying itself much more in earnest with states who have death penalty schemes which seem peculiar or archaic or poorly thought out,” he said.
Justice Samuel Alito was the sole dissenter in Tuesday’s ruling. He disagreed that the Sixth Amendment requires juries to make specific findings authorizing a death sentence. Harrison was brutally murdered; she was bound, gagged, and stabbed more than 60 times, and her death could have taken as long as 15 minutes.
“More than 17 years have passed since Cynthia Harrison was brutally murdered. In the interest of bringing this protracted litigation to a close, I would rule on the issue of harmless error and would affirm the decision of the Florida Supreme Court,” Alito wrote.