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U.S. Supreme Court Set to Decide Constitutionality of Florida’s Death Penalty Statute

The death penalty has remained a controversial punitive measure since the inception of the United States. Currently, the U.S. remains one of just a handful of nations continuing to practice the execution of its most severe offenders – and reigns alongside China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia as one of the top five nations in terms of number of executions. Moreover, the state of Florida has carried out 400 executions so far in 2015, making it the second-highest ranking state for number of executions in the United States.

While public reception of capital punishment continues to wane in favor of its repeal, the U.S. Supreme Court has held time and again in favor of states making their own individual determinations on this divisive issue. However, the death penalty is not without limitations and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide a controversial case involving Florida’s capital punishment statute and its constitutionality under the Eighth Amendment. Known as Hurst v. Florida, the case calls into question the jury’s role in a death penalty case and whether a unanimous death verdict should be required when the defendant’s life is on the line.

Background of Hurst v. Florida

The facts underpinning Hurst v. Florida arose in 1998 when a 19-year old robbed a fast food chain wherein he was an employee, killing the assistant manager in the process. The crime involved two aggravating factors: (i) it was committed in the course of the commission of a felony (robbery), and (ii) it was especially cruel and atrocious (the victim was stabbed over 60 times and left for dead in a deep freezer).

Hurst was found guilty of the crime of first degree murder by a unanimous jury. From there, the case proceeded to the sentencing phase, which involves a specific framework when the defendant is facing a possible death sentence. First, the prosecution and defense are permitted to present evidence of aggravating and mitigating factors (respectively) that may have been excluded at trial for one reason or another. At this point, the jury must provide an “advisory” opinion as to whether the death penalty is appropriate.

From there, the court holds a Spencer hearing to allow both sides to present any additional evidence and for the offender to address the court directly. Lastly, the court itself makes the ultimate determination of life or death after weighing the jury’s advisory opinion, the presentation of additional evidence, and the defendant’s statements. Ultimately, the court is in the position to make the final determination of life or death, prompting many to question Florida’s death penalty scheme in its entirety and whether the decision should be left solely to the jury.

On Appeal

Before the U.S. Supreme is this very issue: whether it violates the Sixth and Eighth amendments for a judge to make a unilateral decision of life or death in Florida death penalty cases, as opposed to a unanimous jury. In a somewhat similar decision known as Ring v. Arizona, the Supreme Court held that only a jury can weigh the applicability of aggravating factors in a death penalty case.

Moreover, the Court held in Ring that a jury must decide any issue that could potentially make a defendant’s punishment more severe, and the Sixth Amendment requires the use of a jury when sentencing an offender to death. Accordingly, both sides of Hurst v. Florida are seeking to apply the standards of Ring to either differentiate or align their own arguments for/against Florida’s sentencing scheme.

Here, the application of Ring could work to undo Florida’s current death sentencing protocol, as it removes the authority from the jury’s hands and places it upon the court to ultimately decide. While the Florida Supreme Court found in favor of the state’s practices, Hurst’s arguments are difficult to ignore given the ruling precedent of Ring. Nonetheless, the state maintains that Ring only requires the use of a unanimous jury in determining death penalty eligibility, but does not so mandate when deciding which sentence to actually impose.

Contact a Sarasota Criminal Defense Attorney Today!

If you are facing a criminal charge and would like to discuss your options with a knowledgeable attorney, please contact the Fowler Law Group right away.

The death penalty has remained a controversial punitive measure since the inception of the United States. Currently, the U.S. remains one of just a handful of nations continuing to practice the execution of its most severe offenders – and reigns alongside China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia as one of the top five nations in terms of number of executions. Moreover, the state of Florida has carried out 400 executions so far in 2015, making it the second-highest ranking state for number of executions in the United States.

While public reception of capital punishment continues to wane in favor of its repeal, the U.S. Supreme Court has held time and again in favor of states making their own individual determinations on this divisive issue. However, the death penalty is not without limitations and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide a controversial case involving Florida’s capital punishment statute and its constitutionality under the Eighth Amendment. Known as Hurst v. Florida, the case calls into question the jury’s role in a death penalty case and whether a unanimous death verdict should be required when the defendant’s life is on the line.

Background of Hurst v. Florida

The facts underpinning Hurst v. Florida arose in 1998 when a 19-year old robbed a fast food chain wherein he was an employee, killing the assistant manager in the process. The crime involved two aggravating factors: (i) it was committed in the course of the commission of a felony (robbery), and (ii) it was especially cruel and atrocious (the victim was stabbed over 60 times and left for dead in a deep freezer).

Hurst was found guilty of the crime of first degree murder by a unanimous jury. From there, the case proceeded to the sentencing phase, which involves a specific framework when the defendant is facing a possible death sentence. First, the prosecution and defense are permitted to present evidence of aggravating and mitigating factors (respectively) that may have been excluded at trial for one reason or another. At this point, the jury must provide an “advisory” opinion as to whether the death penalty is appropriate.

From there, the court holds a Spencer hearing to allow both sides to present any additional evidence and for the offender to address the court directly. Lastly, the court itself makes the ultimate determination of life or death after weighing the jury’s advisory opinion, the presentation of additional evidence, and the defendant’s statements. Ultimately, the court is in the position to make the final determination of life or death, prompting many to question Florida’s death penalty scheme in its entirety and whether the decision should be left solely to the jury.

On Appeal

Before the U.S. Supreme is this very issue: whether it violates the Sixth and Eighth amendments for a judge to make a unilateral decision of life or death in Florida death penalty cases, as opposed to a unanimous jury. In a somewhat similar decision known as Ring v. Arizona, the Supreme Court held that only a jury can weigh the applicability of aggravating factors in a death penalty case.

Moreover, the Court held in Ring that a jury must decide any issue that could potentially make a defendant’s punishment more severe, and the Sixth Amendment requires the use of a jury when sentencing an offender to death. Accordingly, both sides of Hurst v. Florida are seeking to apply the standards of Ring to either differentiate or align their own arguments for/against Florida’s sentencing scheme.

Here, the application of Ring could work to undo Florida’s current death sentencing protocol, as it removes the authority from the jury’s hands and places it upon the court to ultimately decide. While the Florida Supreme Court found in favor of the state’s practices, Hurst’s arguments are difficult to ignore given the ruling precedent of Ring. Nonetheless, the state maintains that Ring only requires the use of a unanimous jury in determining death penalty eligibility, but does not so mandate when deciding which sentence to actually impose.

Contact a Sarasota Criminal Defense Attorney Today!

If you are facing a criminal charge and would like to discuss your options with a knowledgeable attorney, please contact the Fowler Law Group right away.

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