Richard Dieter [Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center]: A federal judge in Florida this week ruled that the state's death penalty statute was unconstitutional and in violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury. This ruling has been a long time coming and may have a significant impact on Florida capital cases. The problem is with the way Florida decides who should be sentenced to death. In most death penalty states and under federal law, the questions of guilt and capital sentencing are both determined by a unanimous jury. In Florida (and a few other states), the jury determines guilt, but only makes a recommendation with respect to sentencing. Despite the fact that a decision about life and death is more critical than one about guilt or innocence, the US Supreme Court has upheld this practice.
Imagine if a jury found a defendant guilty of second-degree murder, but was unsure of their finding on first-degree murder. Further imagine that the judge then decided on his own that the defendant was indeed guilty in the first degree. That would be unconstitutional because the more serious conviction must also be determined beyond a reasonable doubt by the jury. Essentially, Florida has been allowing a comparable procedure to take place in death sentencing. The jury finds the defendant guilty of murder, but makes no determination on whether the facts make him eligible for the higher degree of murder that could result in a death sentence. In Florida, that factual determination is left to the judge.
In 2002, the US Supreme Court held in Ring v. Arizona that aggravating factors that make a defendant eligible for the death penalty fall under the Sixth Amendment right to a jury determination. Through further appeals, Florida's statute now will be closely examined in light of this decision. With the second largest death row in the country, the implications for the state could be significant, though not as sweeping as they probably should be. That is because the Supreme Court held that Ring was not retroactive, meaning it only applied to cases where the conviction was not yet final.
One of the interesting things about Ring is that the Supreme Court admitted they had made a mistake. The same issue had been put before them earlier, but they had misread the Arizona statute at issue. Despite this error, and despite the fact that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is a fundamental precept of our justice system, the Court ruled in 2004 that defendants whose cases were beyond direct appeal could not benefit from this ruling, even if they were deprived of a jury. These rulings expose the continuing arbitrariness of the death penalty, a problem more fully explored in the Death Penalty Information Center's latest report [PDF] "Struck By Lightning: The Continuing Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty Thirty-Five Years After Its Reinstatement in 1976."
Suggested Citation: Richard Dieter, Florida ruling highlights arbitrariness of death penalty, JURISTHotline, June 24, 2011, http://jurist.org/hotline/2011/06/richard-dieter-florida-death-penalty.php.