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U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Florida’s death penalty system for giving more power to judges over juries 

Judge and executioner

Less than a week after Florida executed serial killer Oscar Ray Bolin Jr. for the murders of three women, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state's death penalty sentencing system is unconstitutional because it gives more power to judges than juries in regard to capital sentences.

The Supreme Court's 8-1 ruling in Hurst v. Florida could potentially affect the status of 390 inmates currently on Florida's death row. More immediately, it could have an impact on the fates of Michael Ray Lambrix and Mark James Asay, who are scheduled for execution on Feb. 11 and March 17, respectively. After he heard the ruling, Gov. Rick Scott (the governor with the most executions under his belt since the death penalty was reinstituted in Florida in 1976) told the Miami Herald his office is reviewing the decision, but did not say whether he would stay Lambrix or Asay's executions.

"I can tell you as a governor, it's a solemn duty, it's the law of land," Scott told the Herald. "What I think about it when I'm involved in that is the victim. Those are not easy. My heart goes out [to the victims]."

But what exactly does the decision in Hurst v. Florida say? Let's say you are found guilty by a trial jury of first-degree murder, which is a capital felony in the state of Florida. In the second part of your trial, known as the "penalty phase," the same judge and jury is used to determine whether you will get life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death sentence.

But there are several differences between Florida and the rest of the country in how the procedures are followed that make the state unique. For instance, in the penalty phase in Florida, the judge, not the jury, determines what facts exist to warrant a death sentence in an evidentiary hearing. The jury, by a majority vote – not a unanimous vote, which is needed during the first part of the trial – renders an "advisory sentence" to the judge. But the judge doesn't have to follow their advice. Regardless of the recommendation the jury makes, the judge is ultimately responsible for handing down a sentence.

What the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida was a trial judge determining whether aggravating or mitigating circumstances exist in a case, and which aggravating facts make a defendant eligible for the death penalty.

"The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant's right to an impartial jury," writes Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the majority. "This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst's death sentence on a jury's verdict, not a judge's fact finding. Florida's sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional." 

The ruling is not a surprise, says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"Every other state provides capital defendants the right to a jury determining whether they are eligible for the death penalty," he says. "The Supreme Court has been watching Florida closely because there are a number of things that happen there that nobody else permits. Florida is one of three states that still allow death sentences to be imposed when the jury has not unanimously agreed."

Florida officials are currently trying to figure out if they should stay the executions of Lambrix and Asay until it's clear to which prisoners Hurst v. Florida applies, says Karen Gottlieb, co-director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University. In their verdict, the Supreme Court justices used the reasoning from the 2002 case Ring v. Arizona, which says juries, not judges, should decide the aggravating factors that make a defendant eligible for the death penalty. After Lambrix asked the Florida Supreme Court for a stay last Wednesday, Attorney General Pam Bondi said in her response that the stay should be denied because Lambrix's conviction and sentence were final in 1996, before Ring was decided.

"It is time for Lambrix's sentence for these brutal murders to be carried out," she says. "The equities in this case tilt decidedly against Lambrix in favor of the state and the victims' family members."

But Gottlieb says retroactivity issues are complex and can't be resolved under the time constraints of the death warrant.

"Right now Florida's death penalty system is in utter chaos," she says. "I certainly hope they recognize they need to have careful consideration of the issues that result from the Hurst decision. It's hard to imagine they would want executions to continue in this amount of uncertainty."

Rita Lucey, Central Florida's first female Catholic priest and an advocate against the death penalty, says although she smiled when she first read the verdict in Hurst, she later felt disappointed because she fears legislators will just alter the procedures to keep the death penalty constitutional.

"We have to get past this eye-for-an-eye kind of mentality," she says. "I think with Florida voters we have to attack this whole death penalty thing from financial standpoint, unfortunately. It costs over $1 million per execution, higher than keeping these people in prison for a lifetime."

Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says it's too early to tell how this decision will affect those on death row, but if anything, it causes more people to learn about how the sentencing system works.

"People are turning away from the death penalty," he says. "There's always going to be those loud voices calling for more killings. It's been that way for 2,000 years, but as people learn more about it, they're not supporting it like they once were."

While the Florida Supreme Court deals with the Hurst decision, the Florida Legislature will busy itself tackling the jury unanimity issue. Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, has filed a bill (SB 330) that requires juries to be unanimous before recommending the death penalty for defendants.


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