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Florida death sentence unconstitutional without unanimous jury

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that a death sentence may not be imposed unless the jury recommendation is unanimous.

Capital Punishment has long been a point of tension and debate in the legal profession.  The trend in the United States appears to be moving further away from the death penalty, and towards more restrictions.  In Florida there have only been 92 completed executions and there are approximately 389 offenders currently on death row.

On October 14, 2016 the Florida Supreme Court ruled that juries must unanimously find all facts necessary to impose a death sentence.  This unanimous decision includes any aggravating factors, and whether they outweigh the mitigating factors.  All aspects of each case must have a unanimous jury verdict.

The decision stems from two separate cases, Hurst v. Florida, and Perry v. Florida.  In Hurst, the court vacated Hurst’s death sentence and remanded the case for a new sentence.  In Perry, the court struck down the Florida legislatures revision of the state’s capital sentencing statute.  The revised statute still did not require a completely unanimous jury verdict.

In response to the Court’s decision, the Florida legislature amended the statute…

Hurst is the same defendant whose appeal reached the Supreme Court of the United States earlier this year, resulting in an 8-1 ruling, which declared the capital sentencing statute unconstitutional as a Sixth Amendment violation.  In response to the Court’s decision, the Florida legislature amended the statute and required juries to unanimously find at least one aggravating circumstance, but still did not require an overall unanimous vote, only 10 of 12 must agree on the death sentence overall.

The death penalty has been around since the time of the colonies, but has faced many challenges, especially when it comes to the roles that jurors play.

The death penalty has been around since the time of the colonies, but has faced many challenges.  These challenges have mostly fallen under the Eighth Amendment, citing that the death penalty and its methods are “cruel”.  A large number of cases surrounding the death penalty focus on juries, and the role they play in imposing the death penalty.  The Supreme Court heard two cases in 1968 dealing with the discretion given to the prosecutor and the jury in capital cases. The first case was U.S. v. Jackson , where the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding a provision of the federal kidnapping statute requiring that the death penalty be imposed only upon recommendation of a jury.  The Court held that this practice was unconstitutional because it encouraged defendants to waive their right to a jury trial to ensure they would not receive a death sentence.

The second case was Witherspoon v. Illinois.  Here, the Supreme Court held that a potential juror’s mere reservations about the death penalty were insufficient grounds to prevent that person from serving on the jury in a death penalty case.  That juror will only be excused if they show that they are completely unable to see past their bias and will categorically refuse to impose a death sentence.

In 1971, the Supreme Court again addressed the problems associated with the role of jurors and their discretion in capital cases.  The Court decided McGautha v. California a consolidated case, where defendants argued it was a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process for jurors to have unrestricted discretion in deciding whether the defendants should live or die, and such discretion resulted in arbitrary and capricious sentencing. The Court, however, rejected these claims, stating that guiding capital sentencing discretion was “beyond present human ability.”

From 1972 to 1976, the death penalty in the United States was suspended, and no executions took place.  In Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court struck down all schemes of capitol punishment.  The Court ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments.  Furman was reversed in 1976, when the court decided Gregg v. GeorgiaIn Gregg, the Court held in a 7-2 decision that the death penalty did not violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment under all circumstances.

…it leaves unclear exactly what will happen in the cases of the inmates on the state’s death row.

The court’s latest decision in Hurst made clear that the statute violated Florida state constitutional provisions requiring unanimous jury verdicts, as well as federal constitutional law.  In Perry, the court struck down the amended death penalty law, saying the statute “cannot be applied constitutionally to pending prosecutions because the Act does not require unanimity in the jury’s final recommendation as to whether the defendant should be sentenced to death.” While the decision in Hurst says that defendants sentenced to death under the unconstitutional sentencing procedures are not entitled to have their sentences automatically reduced to life in prison, it leaves unclear exactly what will happen in the cases of the inmates on the state’s death row.

Florida dealt with the death penalty again in recent weeks with Walls v. StateIn this case, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that death row prisoners who have unsuccessfully argued that they are ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability must be provided a second chance to prove their claims.  All prisoners, even those who have been unsuccessful in the past, must now be given the chance to re argue their intellectual disability.

Alabama [is] the only state that allows judges to impose the death sentences after non-unanimous jury recommendations.

The Delaware Supreme Court recently struck down that state’s death penalty statute on similar grounds, leaving Alabama as the only state that allows judges to impose death sentences after non-unanimous jury recommendations.  In Alabama, judges can impose a death sentence even when a jury has come back with a recommendation of life in prison.  Professor Mary Anne Franks of the University of Miami School of Law said, “The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that jury recommendations for the death penalty must be unanimous is a long overdue recognition of the state’s fatally flawed capital punishment regime.”

Now, lawyers and legislators disagree about what comes next for the state of Florida and their inmates on death row.  Many questions surround what to do with those inmates and their sentences.  Some think that this decision could lead to sentences being thrown out for nearly 400 convicted murderers awaiting execution at Florida State Prison, and that it may cripple the state’s death penalty.  Others say the only thing that has changed is that a jury must now vote unanimously in favor of the death penalty in all future cases.  The U.S. Supreme Court has not said which inmates could be eligible to have their sentences changed, or if any will be eligible.

Katelyn Heath, Ethics Editor Emeritus
About Katelyn Heath, Ethics Editor Emeritus (20 Articles)
Katelyn Heath is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as the Ethics Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2016-2017 academic year. She is from Salisbury, North Carolina and graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a Bachelor of Arts in History and Criminal Justice in 2014. Following her first year of law school she attended Baylor Law Schools Academy of the Advocate in Scotland. She is also currently working for Marshall and Taylor PLLC, a local family law firm.
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