Written by Ethan Paul, undergraduate student at the Pennsylvania State University
The Florida Supreme Court ruled on Friday, October 14, that it is unconstitutional for the death penalty to be imposed without the unanimous support of a jury.
As the New York Times reported, the ruling concerned the tumultuous murder case of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was charged the 1998 murder of Cynthia Lee Harrison at a restaurant in Escambia County. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to death in 2000. Twelve years later, following an order from the Florida Supreme Court that Mr. Hurst be re-sentenced, a new jury recommended the death penalty for Mr. Hurst in a 7-5 split decision, a judgment that Florida law required the presiding judge give “great weight” to before final adjudication on the death penalty sentence.
This decision was then brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2016 case of Hurst v. Florida. The Court ruled by a margin of 8-1 that Mr. Hurst could not be subject to the death penalty by the independent ruling of a judge, with the Sixth Amendment requiring that it only be imposed by the findings of an impartial jury. Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that:
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.
In the wake of this ruling, Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Florida State Legislature revamped Florida’s death penalty system, requiring that “juries reach conclusions about the aggravating factors that are crucial to death penalty decisions;” it also increased the number of jurors who must support a death sentence to at least ten out of twelve, up from the previous statutory minimum of seven.
The Florida Supreme Court, however, ruled that this new was unconstitutional. With regard to Hurst’s case, the Court cited the Eighth Amendment in arguing that the implementation of the death penalty must require unanimous agreement by all jurors:
Requiring unanimous jury recommendations of death before the ultimate penalty may be imposed will ensure that in the view of the jury — a veritable microcosm of the community — the defendant committed the worst of murders with the least amount of mitigation.
The justices ordered that Mr. Hurst be given a new sentencing hearing for his 1998 murder conviction. An entire and unanimous jury of Mr. Hurst’s peers, rather than a judge or a partial majority, will now be required to give the death penalty to Mr. Hurst.
Peter N. Mills, an assistant public defender and chair of the Florida Public Defender Association’s death penalty steering committee, argued that this new requirement will be have a positive impact on the state as a whole:
They (jurors) take responsibility and a sense of ownership when they are required to come to a decision unanimously, so this is a good thing for all of us.
The Jury and Democracy Project’s research on juries shows how seriously they take their charge and that juries recognize that they hold in their hands a defendant’s freedom when they deliberate on a criminal case. Juries are designed to have a strong burden of proof for a reason, such that they can only find guilt for serious crimes when a full jury reaches the same conclusion. Given that the death penalty is the most severe punishment a defendant can be given, the logic of the unanimity requirement seems strongest in such cases.
Nearly all thirty states that have capital punishment require unanimous juries, and there is no reason the others should not follow suit. Whether they should have a death penalty at all, given the fallibility of a legal process that has recorded over one hundred death row exonerations, is another question altogether.