Florida's Death Penalty System Is Unconstitutional, U.S. Supreme Court Rules

Last year, Florida was one of the most enthusiastic states in the nation for handing out the death penalty — and it sentenced those prisoners to death with an unusual system. It's one of the only states that puts the ultimate punishment in judges' hands, not juries. 

Now that system has been declared unconstitutional. In an 8-1 ruling handed down this morning, the Supreme Court decided that Florida gives too much power to those judges in determining whether a death penalty is warranted. 

"The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death," Justice Sonia Sotomayor writes in the court's decision.

Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says the ruling validates what advocates have argued for years. 

"The Legislature had been warned for years by the Florida Supreme Court, by Republican and Democratic members of the Legislature, and by advocates like us that the structure by which prisoners were sentenced to death was unconstitutional," says Simon, noting the ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. "The Legislature just chose to ignore this. Nobody should be surprised by this decision by the nation's highest court."

Simon says the ruling should lead to a deeper look at Florida's death penalty. "It has practical ramifications," he says. "We lead the nation in mistakes — people who have been removed from death row because they were wrongly sentenced to death... From this ideologically polarized court, this sends a big message that they had a problem here that they just ignored."

The case was brought by Timothy Lee Hurst, an inmate sent to death row after killing a co-worker at a fast-food restaurant. But that sentence was imposed by a judge after a jury split 7-5 over whether the death penalty was warranted.

Hurst's attorneys argued that it's unconstitutional for judges to have to consider the jury's vote only as "advisory." The court agreed, with only Justice Samuel Alito dissenting.
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink