Tuesday, January 26, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Florida Death Penalty Unconstitutional

Recently, In Hurst v. Florida, the United States Supreme Court ruled Florida's death penalty unconstitutional as it requires judges, not juries, to find the existence of aggravating circumstances, and to decide the appropriate sentence.  Florida's scheme relegated the jury to an advisory role, which the court had to give "great weight", but from which the judge received no guidance as to the jury's findings with the exception of its generalized recommendation.  Writing for the eight justice majority, Justice Sotomayer reiterated the holding in Apprendi v. New Jersey that any fact which exposes the Defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury's guilty verdict is an essential element which must be submitted to the jury.  Applying the Apprendi decision in Ring v. Arizona, the Court had previously held that capital punishment required factfinding by the jury and not a judge if the death penalty was to be constitutionally imposed. Since Florida's death penalty statute explicitly required the judge to make additional findings in order to impose death, and since the greatest punishment under Florida law without those findings was life imprisonment, the Court determined that Apprendi and Ring were squarely on point as applied to Florida.   In Hurst, decided January 12, 2016, the Court therefore rejected the State's arguments that the jury's guilty verdict in the first phase of the trial necessarily included the requisite factfinding, and also rejected its argument that defense counsel's conceding or not opposing the underlying felony in a contested trial has the same effect as a guilty plea from which factfinding is rendered unnecessary. The Court expressly overruled the pre-Ring cases of Hildwin v. Florida and Spaziano v. Florida to the extent that they "allow a sentencing judge to find an aggravating circumstance, independent of a jury's factfinding."  The decision still leaves open the question of whether the judge, with the jury's factfinding, can impose sentence, and whether the jury verdict imposing death has to be unanimous.  Those questions were left for another day.

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