Supreme Court Declares Florida's Death Penalty Unconstitutional, Leaving The Punishment Up For Debate

| by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
Room Where Lethal Injection Is AdministeredRoom Where Lethal Injection Is Administered

The death penalty has been abolished in 140 countries, but the U.S. is facing changes in how the sentence is handed down  following a Jan. 12 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that declared Florida’s death sentencing system unconstitutional. 

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in the case of Hurst v. Florida that the state’s sentencing process violates the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a jury trial.

In Florida, the jury can offer an “advisory sentence,” which often doesn’t factor in outside circumstances. A judge then considers the evidence and passes down the sentence, which can be the death penalty in certain cases, The Atlantic reported.

A judge doesn’t have to act on the jury’s recommendations and since 1972 there have been 300 instances of  Florida judges ignoring the jury’s advice and sentencing the convicted to either death or life in prison.

In 2000, Timothy Hurst was convicted of stabbing his co-worker to death and was given a sentence of death. In 2012 he had to undergo a second sentencing trial. The jury voted 7 to 5 that Hurst should face the death penalty and the judge agreed.

Although the ruling immediately impacts Florida’s justice system, the effects could echo across the country. 

Arizona has had similar sentencing format, although it lacked any jury component, before the Supreme Court ruled against it in 2002. As of the most recent ruling, the only state where a judge can override a jury is Alabama, where more than half of the inmates on death row were placed there by judges who overruled the jury.

"The Florida Supreme Court has a dozen different directions that it can go in and the only certain thing is that this is going to be litigated for a long time," Michael Radelet, an expert on the Florida death penalty, told NPR.

It’s likely Florida’s Supreme Court will halt executions temporarily. "The next execution is scheduled for Feb. 11 so we'll find out what happens pretty quickly,” Radlet said.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, there will likely be a wave of appeals from the 390 inmates on death row in Florida.

Sources: Amnesty International, The Atlantic, NPR, Tampa Bay Times / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons