The Supreme Court today declared Florida’s system for sentencing people to death unconstitutional because it gives too much power to judges and not enough to juries, the Associated Press reports. The 8-1 ruling said the state’s sentencing procedure is flawed because juries play only an advisory role in recommending death, and the judge can reach a different decision. The court sided with Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of the 1998 murder of his manager at a Popeye’s restaurant in Pensacola. A jury divided 7-5 in favor of death, but a judge imposed the sentence. Florida’s top lawyer argued that the system was acceptable because a jury first decides if the defendant is eligible for the death penalty.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said a jury’s “mere recommendation is not enough.” She said the court was overruling previous decisions upholding the state’s sentencing process. “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” she said. The justices sent the case back to the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether the error in sentencing Hurst was harmless, or whether he should get a new sentencing hearing. Justice Samuel Alito dissented, saying that the trial judge in Florida simply performs a reviewing function that duplicates what the jury has done. Under Florida law, the state requires juries in capital sentencing cases to weigh factors for and against imposing a death sentence. The judge is not bound by those findings and can reach a different conclusion. Florida is one of only three states that do not require a unanimous jury verdict when sentencing someone to death. The others are Alabama and Delaware.