Is Florida Killing Convicts Unconstitutionally? Supreme Court to Review State's Death Penalty Policy

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

Florida has one of the most unusual set of laws for sentencing someone to death in the entire nation. Florida also sends more inmates to death row and executes more prisoners than most other states in the nation. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, only Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia have executed more inmates. In fact, Florida executed about seven times the number of inmates than California has in that time, and 394 more people currently sit on Florida's death row. 

It turns out, however, that the way Florida sentences criminals to death may be unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court listened to argument yesterday in the case of Hurst v. Florida

The Supreme Court's decision could seriously and forever reduce the number of people who are sentenced to death in execution-happy Florida, and, depending on the details of the outcome, spare the lives of some of the hundreds of people who sit on death row. 

Under Florida law, first-degree murder is punished by life imprisonment unless there are aggravating factors. Florida spells out 17 such aggravating factors, and they range from a murder carried out in a particularly heinous way to whether the victim was a child or a law enforcement officer. 

The question at hand in Hurst v. Florida is who exactly gets to decide whether there were any aggravating factors and how they can come to that conclusion. 

Here's how it works in most other states: A jury of 12 all agrees on the same aggravating factors and sends the inmate to death row. There are two states were only 10 out of 12 jurors must agree on the aggravating factor. 

Here's how it works in Florida: A simple majority of the jury agrees that there is an aggravating factor. They don't have to necessarily believe it's the same aggravating factor. They don't have to report the breakdown of which aggravating factor they found either, so the defendant never really knows exactly why the jury is sending him or her to death. 

Oh, and here's the other Florida-specific hitch. A judge can just completely ignore the jury's decisions and send the defendant to death row based on his or her own decision. Jury recommendations are legally seen as just that — recommendations that the judge may or may not decide follow. 

Timothy Hurst
Timothy Hurst
Courtesy of Florida Corrections

The particular case in question involves Timothy Lee Hurst. He worked as a prep cook during the morning shift at a Popeye's Chicken restaurant in Pensacola preparing biscuits and washing dishes. On May 2, 1998, Hurst decided to rob the restaurant he worked at. During the commission of the robbery he brutally murdered an assistant manager named Cynthia Harrison. Hurst made off with around $2,000. Harrison's body was found bound and gagged with black electrical tape in the freezer. Her body was inflicted with about 60 slash wound, believed to have been from a box cutter. 

At issue is not whether Hurst murdered Harrison, but rather whether the way he was sentenced to death was constitutional. A jury ruled seven to five that he should receive death after unanimously finding him guilty of murder. Two aggravating circumstance were cited. 

He's being represented in the case by former federal solicitor general Seth P. Waxman, a frequent presence before the Supreme Court. As is typical with Supreme Court hearings, the hearing focused more on the constitutionality of the laws than the particulars of Hurst's case. 

Waxman argues that Florida's system is unconstitutional because it violates the Sixth-Amendment guarantee of a trial by jury in criminal cases and the Eighth Amendment's barring against cruel and unusual punishment. 

"Under Florida law, Timothy Hurst will go to his death despite the fact that a judge, not a jury, made the factual finding that rendered ­­ rendered him eligible for death," said Waxman during his opening argument. "That violates the Sixth Amendment under Ring." 

Florida was being represented by Allen Winsor, the state's solicitor general and a Pam Bondi appointee, who seemed to stumble during the arguments. 

Florida has an exceptionally large number of people on death row.
Florida has an exceptionally large number of people on death row.
Image via GeoCurrents

Hearing transcripts list Winsor as saying simply, "I'm sorry" eight separate times, "uh-huh" twice, and simply "right" three different times. 

The Supreme Court reporter for also seems to think Winsor completely bungled his case with a single line

“As a matter of Florida statutory law, yes,” Winsor responds — but as a matter of constitutional law, “no.” There is a moment of silence as everybody realizes that Winsor just gave away his case, openly admitting that Florida’s capital sentencing laws are incompatible with the Constitution. Breyer relents, but spends the rest of the morning looking frustrated, gazing at the audience like a captain looking out over a foggy sea.

Most other court watchers and reporters seem to think that the body will likely rule against Florida. 

"The justices seem likely to decide that Florida's death-sentencing scheme is unconstitutional," wrote the Economist

"A majority of the Supreme Court on Tuesday expressed skepticism over Florida’s unique method for sentencing people to death," reported Chris Geidner for Buzzfeed

"A majority of the court’s nine justices signaled concern about Florida’s system for deciding death sentences," reported the Guardian

In other words, it appears likely that Florida's system of sentencing people to death may be in store for a big change, but the court is not expected to release its final decision until the end of next June.

In the meantime, the state legislature will have another chance to address the issue on its own. Miami State Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez plans to introduce a bill that would end Florida's "simple majority" jury system for death penalty cases. He introduced a similar bill last year that died in the House, but says the Supreme Court's looming decision might motivate GOP lawmakers this year.

"We're the only state that actively executes people that hasn't done this fix already," Rodriguez tells New Times. "This isn't pro or anti death penalty thing, it's just a constitutional issue."

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