[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 8-1 Monday in Hurst v. Florida [docket] that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment. The Florida law [text] states that in a sentencing hearing, the jury hears the evidence and votes on an “advisory sentence,” but in a separate hearing the judge must find and weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances to determine whether to impose a death sentence, regardless of the jury’s recommendation. The court relied on Ring v. Arizona [opinion, PDF], a 2002 case that found Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme unconstitutional because it permitted a judge instead of a jury to be the fact-finder regarding whether a death sentence should be imposed. Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated:
The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury. This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s factfinding. Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional.
The decision upholding Hurst’s death sentence was reversed and the case remanded for proceedings consistent with the opinion.
Petitioner Hurst was found guilty by a Florida jury of murdering his coworker. The jury recommended the death penalty, and the judge found the requisite aggravating circumstances to sentence Hurst to death. Use of the death penalty [JURIST news archive] has been a controversial issue throughout the US and internationally. Last month the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the authority [JURIST report] of Governor Tom Wolf to postpone executions in the commonwealth. In October the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously granted [JURIST report] a request from Attorney General Scott Pruitt to halt all of the state’s scheduled executions to allow for an investigation into why the prison received incorrect lethal injection drugs. Oklahoma became the epicenter [JURIST report] of the lethal injection drug debate in 2014 after the death of Clayton Lockett, a death row inmate who died of an apparent heart attack minutes after doctors called off a failed attempt to execute him. In June the US Supreme Court held that the use of the drug midazolam may be used in executions [JURIST report] without violating the constitution.