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Supreme Court hears arguments on juvenile homicide sentences, Florida death sentencing scheme

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] Tuesday on two cases. In Montgomery v. Louisiana [transcript, PDF] the court heard arguments on whether [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] the court's 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama [JURIST report], which struck down state laws that mandated a life sentence for capital offenses by minors, applies retroactively. The case involves a man, Henry Montgomery, convicted in 1963 of murdering a deputy sheriff at the age of 17. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Now, at the age of 70, he is asking for a new sentencing hearing in hopes that the ruling in 2012 will apply to his 1963 life sentence. The case could affect more than 2,000 people currently serving life terms for homicides committed as juveniles. Typically, the Supreme Court does not [NPR report] make its decisions retroactively, but there are exceptions, and this case could be one of them.

The court also heard arguments in Hurst v. Florida [transcript, PDF] on whether [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] Florida's death sentencing scheme, which does not require a jury to determine whether a defendant convicted of a capital offense is mentally disabled or to unanimously sentence a defendant to death, violates either the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment. The case involves Timothy Lee Hurst who was tried and sentenced to death in 2000 for the 1998 murder of Cynthia Lee Harrison. At trial he was prevented from presenting evidence of mental retardation as an absolute bar to the death penalty, but only as mitigating evidence. A jury in 2012 recommended a death sentence by a vote of 7 to 5. The Supreme Court in 2002 decided Ring v. Arizona in which it required that the presence of aggravating factors, in this case for the death penalty, be determined by the jury. Florida's supreme court had ruled that Ring did not apply to Florida's death penalty scheme. Seth Waxman, a lawyer for Hurst, stated [NYT report] that the jury was not required to render a unanimous verdict, to specify which factors warranted death or even to say whether the jurors in the majority agreed on which factors they had relied on. There is no other state that does not require a unanimous decision for imposing the death penalty.

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