Hurst v. Florida: Jury Sentencing (01/12/16)


Hurst v. Florida

Did Florida’s capital sentencing scheme violate Hurst’s right to the Sixth Amendment in the light of Ring?

See Ring v. Arizona for more.  

Argued: 10/13/2015

Decision Date: 01/12/2016

Decision Record: 8-1; yes

Justices in Favor: Elena Kagan (LC*), Antonin Scalia (RC), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (L), Anthony Kennedy (LC), John Roberts (RC), and Stephen Breyer (L), Clarence Thomas (R), Sonia Sotomayor (L)

Justices Dissenting: Samuel Alito (R)


Effect of the Decision

This case clarified that a final sentence of death had to be decided by an impartial jury, and not a judge.


In Favor

In the favoring side of this case, attorney Seth P. Waxman argued, “Under Florida law, Timothy Hurst will go to his death despite the fact that a judge, not a jury, made the factual finding that rendered — rendered him eligible for death.

That violates the Sixth Amendment under Ring.

In Florida, and Florida alone, what authorizes imposition of the death penalty is a finding of fact by the court of an aggravating factor, a finding that the trial judge makes independently, and, quote, “notwithstanding the jury’s recommendation as to sentence.” Now, the State here contends that capital sentencing juries make implicit findings that satisfy the Sixth Amendment under Ring, which the trial judge then simply ratifies.

That is wrong. Whatever the jury’s recommendation might imply about the specified aggravating factors, the Florida Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the notion that the jury’s verdict is anything other than advisory. Florida law entrusts the factual findings of aggravators to the judge alone, who may do so on the basis of evidence that the jury never heard, and aggravators that the jury was never presented with.”


In the opposition, represented by attorney Allen Winsor, he claimed, “Florida’s capital sentencing system was constitutional before Ring v. Arizona, and it remains constitutional in light of Ring v. Arizona.

What Ring required was a jury determination on those facts on which the State legislature conditions the imposition of the death penalty. In this instance Mr. Hurst got that.

The legislature has determined that the elements necessary to make a defendant eligible for the death penalty is the existence of a murder and one or more aggravating circumstances. And what the other side calls the advisory sentence included within it a finding, as this Court recognized in the United States v. Jones, that the jury had determined there was one or more aggravating circumstances.”


On the majority side, also the affirming side, Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion slip. She wrote, “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 fact-finding. Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional. The judgment of the Florida Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

In the side of the opposition, Justice Alito wrote the opinion slip. He wrote, “Once the jury has made this decision, the trial court performs what amounts, in practical terms, to a reviewing function. The judge duplicates the steps previously formed by the jury and, while the court can impose a sentence different from that recommended by the jury, the judge must accord the jury’s recommendation ‘great weight.’ Indeed, if the jury recommends a life sentence, the judge may override that decision only if ‘the facts suggesting a sentence of death were so clear and convincing that virtually no reasonable person could differ.’ No Florida trial court has overruled a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence for more than 15 years. Under the Florida system, the jury plays a critically important role. Our decision in Ring did not decide whether this procedure violates the Sixth Amendment, and I would not extend Ring to cover the Florida system.”

My Opinion:

In this case, I agree with the majority opinion. Hurst’s death penalty was not sentenced to him by an impartial jury, however, an impartial jury is what the Sixth Amendment specifically requires. Hurst was only recommended a death penalty by a jury, but it was a judge who sentenced him to death. The case law, Ring v. Arizona made it clear that a death penalty had to be placed by a jury, not a judge. Nevertheless, it was a judge that had sentenced Hurst to death, but because this went against the Sixth Amendment, it also violated Hurst’s constitutional right to the Sixth Amendment. The difference between an impartial jury and a judge is crystal clear. Therefore, Hurst’s death penalty sentence, issued by the judge, was overturned by the Supreme Court.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

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