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Opinion analysis: Juries control the death penalty (UPDATED)

UPDATED 2:41 p.m.   Several readers have pointed out that at least one other state, Alabama, allows trial judges to override the recommendations of juries on death sentencing.  It appears that the impact of the Hurst decision on any other state’s law will depend on the specifics of the actual procedure used, although the Court did write very broadly in dealing with the principles governing the process.


Striking down the last state law that denies the jury in a murder case the final choice on a death sentence, the Supreme Court on Tuesday nullified Florida’s capital-sentencing regime because it gives the final decision to the trial judge.  By a vote of eight to one in Hurst v. Florida, the Court also overruled two of its prior decisions that had upheld Florida’s law.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s fairly brief majority opinion relied primarily upon a 2002 decision, Ring v. Arizona, which the Court interpreted to have made clear that if there is ever to be a death sentence in a murder case tried by a jury, the jurors must hold the final decision, not subject to being second-guessed by the judge.

The ruling, however, did not immediately spare the life of Timothy Lee Hurst of Pensacola for murdering a co-worker at a fast-food restaurant more than seventeen years ago.  The Court sent back to state courts the question whether the flaw in the sentencing procedure was a “harmless error” — that is, whether Hurst would have been sentenced to death even if Florida had left the decision solely to the jury.  Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., the lone dissenter on Tuesday, would have decided that the error was, in fact, harmless as to Hurst.

The Court has been working steadily for more than fifteen years, since its decision in 2000 in Apprendi v. New Jersey, to enhance the role of jurors in criminal trials.  In Apprendi, it ruled that any fact which increases the severity of the sentence must be found by a jury, not the judge, under the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.  Tuesday’s ruling on the Florida law appeared to have completed that process in any case in which a death sentence is at issue.  No other state imitated the judicial veto that Florida’s scheme had protected.

The Sotomayor opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia.  Justice Stephen G. Breyer supported only the outcome; he noted in a separate opinion that he believes that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” requires a jury, rather than a judge, to decide whether to impose a death sentence.

Alito, in dissent, said it defied belief that, given the brutality of the crime, the jury would not have found a final basis for imposing the death sentence for Hurst if its view were binding.  He also said he did not join in the Court’s decision in this case to overrule its two prior precedents in favor of the Florida approach: Spaziano v. Florida in 1984 and Hildwin v. Florida in 1989.  Before considering whether to overrule those decisions, Alito said, he would want the Court to reconsider Ring v. Arizona; he argued that Arizona’s procedure differed from Florida’s.

In Hurst’s case, the jury used its advisory role to conclude that the crime justified a recommendation to the judge of a death sentence, but its vote on that advice was split seven to five.  The judge then made findings, on his own, to justify imposing a death sentence.

In taking the case to the Supreme Court, Hurst’s lawyers had also made a challenge to the lack of unanimity in the jury’s recommendation.  The Court’s decision did not deal with that issue at all.  Presumably, when the case returns to Florida courts, his lawyers will make the argument that the split verdict on that recommendation supports the argument that the flawed procedure was not harmless.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion analysis: Juries control the death penalty (UPDATED), SCOTUSblog (Jan. 12, 2016, 11:48 AM),