Timothy Hurst was convicted of first-degree murder for killing a co-worker. The jury recommended that he receive the death penalty and the judge agreed. Mr. Hurst appealed his sentence and he was granted a new sentencing hearing. At that re-sentencing hearing, the jury still recommended death and the judge still agreed. Mr. Hurst appealed once more with his attorneys arguing that the sentence violated his Sixth Amendment rights. The Florida Supreme Court rejected his arguments. The Supreme Court of the United States, however, did not.
Under Florida law, the maximum sentence a person can receive based on a conviction alone is life imprisonment. If prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, Florida juries can recommend it. In those cases, an evidentiary hearing is held in front of a jury, which upon a majority vote, will issue an "advisory opinion" recommending the ultimate sentence. With that opinion in hand, a judge will still be responsible to make the final decision after weighing the evidence available, along with the aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
It is that final portion of the process – the part where a judge makes the final decision – that the Supreme Court found was a violation of the Sixth Amendment. In a ruling (PDF warning) that went 8 to 1, with Justice Samuel Alito the dissenting vote, the Court also overruled two of its prior decisions that upheld Florida's law. While a concurring opinion was filed by Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Kagan, the majority opinion was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who made it clear the court felt the final decision for a death penalty sentence should reside in the hands of the jury with no opportunity for a judge to change that decision.
In coming to that conclusion, the Court clarified a number of different factors when it comes to the death penalty. First, it found that a judge's independent factfinding was an element that exposed the defendant to a punishment that was greater than what was authorized by a jury's guilty verdict. Second, it came to the conclusion by rejecting the State of Florida's arguments.
The arguments Florida made included that the jury's recommendation was a necessary factual finding as required under Ring v. Arizona, 536 US 584 (2002); that Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 US 466 (2000) allows a judge to hand down a death penalty sentence in such a manner; that previous Supreme Court cases upheld Florida's system; and that any error would be harmless. The Supreme Court found that Florida previously argued the jury's recommendation was advisory and cannot now argue otherwise; that Apprendi involved a guilty plea rather than a guilty verdict following a jury trial, so it did not apply; that previous cases upholding Florida's system no longer made sense and were thus overruled; and that state courts normally address whether error is harmless or not, not the US Supreme Court.
For a Supreme Court decision, this was relatively brief and to the point. It relied primarily on Ring, which the Court said made it clear that in a murder case tried by a jury, the jurors must make the final decision. Justice Breyer's concurring opinion agreed with the outcome, but disagreed with the way that conclusion was reached. Rather than a Sixth Amendment violation, he argued the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" is what put the power of imposing a death sentence in the hands of a jury.
Despite ruling in Mr. Hurst's favor, his life was still not spared by the Court. The case was sent back to the Florida state courts, stating that it is up to them to decide whether or not the error was harmless. What this means is that if he would have been sentenced to death even if it had been solely left to the jury, the order for his execution will still stand. In Justice Alito's dissenting opinion, he stated that the error would, in fact, be harmless, and used that reason to rule in the State of Florida's favor, despite the fact that the recommendation for the death penalty was seven to five.
Since Apprendi was decided in 2000, many of the decisions made by the Supreme Court have been made with the seeming intention to increase the role of jurors in criminal trials in general. Some experts think that this case marks the end of that process. However, that may be premature, as the challenge made by Mr. Hurst's lawyers as to the sufficiency of a sentence that lacks unanimity was sent back to the state courts to decide. While waiting for that issue to be resolved, Florida's legislature has already stated that they will quickly change state law. "The Supreme Court has impeccable timing," said Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.