Supreme Court Deals Blow To Florida’s Death Sentencing System
Juries, not judges, must decide whether ultimate penalty is justified. I am opposed to the killing of humans, and that includes the government sanctioned death penalty. Yesterday, Richard Wolf of USA Today reported that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that judges deciding on the death penalty rather than juries, is unconstitutional.
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Florida’s system of letting judges, not juries, decide whether convicted criminals deserve the death penalty.
The 8-1 ruling is significant because Florida has about 400 prisoners on death row, second only to California — and unlike California, it conducts executions regularly. However, most of the state’s prisoners are not likely to be affected because their appeals have run out or their convictions were based on indisputable aggravating circumstances.
In Florida, judges can impose the death penalty even if the jury has not ruled unanimously or agreed on any aggravating circumstance. If the jury has issued a recommendation, the judge doesn’t have to follow it. No other state gives judges such discretion.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the decision for the nearly unanimous court, with Justice Samuel Alito dissenting.
“We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional,” Sotomayor said. “The 6th 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.”
Alito disagreed, contending that past Supreme Court rulings allow judges to establish the facts leading to a death sentence. Even so, he said, “under the Florida system, the jury plays a critically important role.”
The case was brought before SCOTUS by Timothy Hurst, a death row prisoner in Florida. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, must determine whether the necessary facts exist to justify a death sentence. In Hurst’s case, the jury voted 7 – 5, and it was not clear what the majority voted.