Hurst v. Florida – “A Jury, not judge, must make findings required to impose death sentence
The Sixth Amendment requires that a jury, not a judge, find each fact necessary to impose a death sentence, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Jan. 12 in Hurst v. Florida.
The Court struck down Florida’s capital sentencing scheme which authorized an advisory sentencing recommendation by a jury, followed by independent fact-finding by a judge.
The Court expressly overruled two prior decisions upholding Florida’s capital scheme.
Timothy Lee Hurst was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, following a jury recommendation of death and findings by a judge supporting a death sentence.
Florida law provides that a person convicted of a capital felony shall be sentenced to death only if an additional sentencing proceeding results in “findings by the court” that a death sentence is warranted.
Florida uses a “hybrid” proceeding whereby a jury first renders an advisory sentence of life or death without specifying the factual basis of its recommendation. Subsequently, a judge independently weighs the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and must make findings to support a death sentence.
Hurst argued that Florida’s sentencing scheme violated Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), because it allowed a judge, not a jury, to make factual findings to increase his punishment to death.
The Florida Supreme Court rejected Hurst’s argument on grounds that the U.S. Supreme Court had repeatedly upheld Florida’s capital sentencing scheme in pre-Ring cases.
“The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough,” the Court held.
The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires that any fact that exposes a defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by a jury’s guilty verdict is an “element” that must be submitted to and found by the jury.
Although the Florida scheme uses an advisory jury, the jury does not make specific factual findings with regard to the existence of aggravating or mitigating circumstances. Those findings, which are necessary to impose death, are made by a judge.
The Court expressly overruled Hildwin v. Florida, 490 U.S. 638 (1989), and Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U.S. 447 (1984), “to the extent that they allow a sentencing judge to find an aggravating circumstance, independent of a jury’s factfinding, that is necessary for imposition of the death penalty.”
Justice Breyer concurred in the judgment. Justice Alito dissented.