Keeping up with rulings from the United States Supreme Court is just as important to us as blogging about relevant practitioner issues. Please use this page as a way to stay updated on the changes in the Criminal Law area as we work to research, analyze, predict, and summarize the decisions of the Supreme Court. 

 Recent Supreme Court Cases

Hurst v. Florida

Facts: The Florida capital sentencing scheme is unique and is one of 31 states that use capital punishment. Under Florida law, the State must prove at least one statutory aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt. In Florida, the jury plays an advisory role. Only a simple majority is needed to recommend a death sentence, and the jury does not give express findings on the aggravating circumstances. The jury in Hurst recommended a death sentence 7-5. Two aggravating circumstances were at issue. The judge independently based the decision on heinous murder and robbery aggravators. Once the jury assessed the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, it made a non-binding recommendation, and the judge, based on his or her own assessment of the facts, decided whether the defendant should be sentenced to death. The Court ultimately struck down the Florida sentencing scheme largely because it gave the final decision to the trial judge. The majority held that under Ring, the jury must have the ultimate decision when deciding whether to sentence someone to death. Additionally, under Apprendi v. New Jersey, “the Sixth Amendment provides defendants with the right to have a jury find” the “facts that increase the prescribed range of penalties to which a criminal defendant is exposed ... beyond a reasonable doubt.”  The case was remanded back to the lower court to determine whether the flaws in the sentencing procedure were just a harmless error, and that Hurst would have been sentenced to death anyway if the jury had had the final decision. Justice Alito in his dissent opined that the sentencing procedure was just a harmless error.

 

Issue: Whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme violated the Sixth or the Eighth Amendments based on the Court's decision in Ring v. Arizona. In Ring, the court questioned whether the judge alone could determine aggravating circumstances in order to impose the death penalty. Ring held that under the Sixth Amendment the finding of aggravating circumstances in capital cases must be entrusted to a jury.

        

Arguments: The petitioner argued that under Ring, his eligibility for a death sentence must be “entrusted to the jury” and not to a judge. The petitioner argued that Florida procedures violate all other state death penalty sentencing schemes. There is no indication how the jury voted on each circumstance. For instance, with a 7-5 decision, it is possible that four jurors found one aggravator, and three found the other, which is not a majority. The judge makes the final determination, possibly considering evidence and other aggravators that were never shown to the jury. Appellate courts only look to the judge’s written fact findings. The main argument put forth by the petitioner falls under a totality of the circumstances approach. The respondent argues that even if the state could constitutionally allow the jury to only have an advisory role, or permit different aggravators found on different theories, or allow the jury to find aggravators only on bare majorities, the state is not allowed to do all of those things at once without violating the constitution.

 

The respondent argued that the Florida death sentencing scheme is completely consistent with Ring, arguing that Ring requires a jury to determine the existence of aggravating circumstances and whether the defendant is eligible for a death sentence. The jury does not have to decide whether the defendant is sentenced to death. Any additional court findings would not enhance the maximum penalty the defendant receives, not violating Ring. The respondent argued that by requiring both the judge and the jury to find at least one aggravating circumstance, the system increases protections for the defendant. Additionally, the respondent argued that the Constitution does not require jury sentencing. Respondent also argued that in Hurst’s specific case, the sentence was constitutional because the petitioner himself admitted to the aggravating circumstance.

 

Practitioner Implications: The holding in this case opens the door for opponents of the death penalty across the country to expose procedural flaws in sentencing to overturn death penalty statutes. In this 8-1 decision, the Court struck down Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedures. Other states will likely have cases brought before the Court on similar issues. The procedural and moral issues underlying capital punishment are not easily overlooked. Those who morally oppose the death penalty may find it advantageous to establish procedural flaws in the system in order to eradicate the death penalty once and for all, just as the Court attempted to in Furman v. Georgia. Establishing an increasingly flawed system may show that the capital punishment procedures are inherently flawed and can therefore not be used as a valid form of punishment.

 

Second only to California, Florida has the most inmates on death row than any other state. Over 400 people in Florida are currently awaiting execution. Schriro v. Summerlin held in 2004 that Ring does not apply retroactively to “cases already final on direct review.” However, it makes little sense that people unconstitutionally sentenced to death will allow their punishments to stand. Those awaiting execution will not excuse a final decision based on wrongful constitutional interpretation. At this time, the Florida death penalty scheme is unconstitutional, meaning capital punishment cannot be sought in murder cases until the scheme is reformed. Practitioners should expect an influx of requests for representation in an attempt to apply Hurst retroactively.