Florida’s new death penalty scheme declared unconstitutional

Supreme Court of Florida: In a 5:2 ruling the Florida Supreme Court held that a unanimous jury recommendation is required before death penalty may be imposed, in accord with the precepts of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Florida’s right to trial by jury, and thereby declared Florida’s newly legislated death penalty law unconstitutional.

The ruling came in a case on remand from the decision in Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616 (2016), wherein the Supreme Court of United States had struck down Florida’s old death penalty law and had reversed the decision of the Supreme Court of Florida affirming Timothy Hurst’s death sentence for the murder of co-worker Cynthia Harrison in Hurst v. State, 147 So. 3d 435 (Fla. 2014). The Supreme Court declared Florida’s death penalty scheme unconstitutional for being violative of Sixth Amendment, because it required the judge, rather than the jury, to find the facts necessary to impose the death sentence, and to ultimately determine the sentence since the jury’s verdict on death penalty was only advisory. The Supreme Court also remanded the case to the Supreme Court of Florida to consider whether the error in Hurst’s sentencing was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Meanwhile, a new death penalty law was legislated which required the jury to unanimously find that at least one aggravating circumstance existed in order for defendants to be eligible for death penalty, and also required that at least 10 jurors recommend the death penalty, a departure from the old law, which required a simple majority.

The Supreme Court of Florida held that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Hurst v. Florida requires that all the critical findings necessary before the trial court may consider imposing death penalty must be found unanimously by the jury. These specific findings required to be made by the jury include the existence of each aggravating factor that has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the finding that the aggravating factors are sufficient, and the finding that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating circumstances. The court also held, based on Florida’s requirement for unanimity in jury verdicts, and under the Eighth Amendment, that in order for the trial court to impose death penalty, the jury’s recommended sentence of death must be unanimous. Lastly, the Court concluded that the error in Hurst’s sentencing identified by the United States Supreme Court was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and therefore a fresh penalty phase proceeding was remanded. [Timothy Lee Hurst v. State of Florida, SC12-1947 (Fla. 2014), decided on 14 October, 2016]

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