January 12, 2016
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Florida’s system of letting judges, not juries, decide whether convicted criminals deserve the death penalty.
The 8-1 ruling is significant because Florida has nearly 400 prisoners on death row, second only to California — and unlike California, it conducts executions regularly. However, most of the state’s prisoners will not be affected because their appeals have run out or their convictions were based on indisputable aggravating circumstances.
In Florida, judges can impose the death penalty even if the jury has not ruled unanimously or agreed on any aggravating circumstance. If the jury has issued a recommendation, the judge doesn’t have to follow it. No other state gives judges such discretion.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the decision for the nearly unanimous court, with Justice Samuel Alito dissenting.
“We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional,” Sotomayor said. “The 6th Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”
Alito disagreed, contending that past Supreme Court rulings allow judges to establish the facts leading to a death sentence. Even so, he said, “under the Florida system, the jury plays a critically important role.”
The ruling in the case brought by death row prisoner Timothy Hurst won’t affect other states, where juries have considerably more power and their verdicts must be unanimous. Still, it’s another setback for proponents of capital punishment nationally at a time when the Supreme Court is hearing many such cases — and could ultimately rule on whether the death penalty itself violates the Constitution
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