The Supreme Court this week made a rare 8-1 decision that the practice of Florida trial judges being the sole arbiter of death penalty punishment without a trial by jury violates the Sixth Amendment and is unconstitutional.
In an 8-1 decision, the court said Florida violated the Sixth Amendment by allowing judges, rather than juries, to determine whether certain criteria for a death sentence had been met.
Timothy Lee Hurst was sentenced to death more than a decade ago for the brutal murder of a woman he worked with at a fast-food restaurant. Under Florida law, murder is normally punishable by life imprisonment; a death sentence can be imposed only if a judge determines that “aggravating circumstances” warrant the tougher sentence.
But that determination ought to belong to a jury, not a judge, the Supreme Court ruled.
“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,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority. “Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional.”
Florida’s system required juries to make an “advisory sentence,” which judges are supposed to take into account when they make the final determination about whether to apply the death penalty. The state’s lawyers argued that was enough, and Justice Samuel Alito—the only dissenting vote—agreed.
“Under the Florida system, the jury plays a critically important role,” Alito wrote.
In last summer's Glossip v Gross death penalty ruling on the constitutionality of lethal injection, it was Alito that wrote the opinion for the 5-4 majority that the method of administering capital punishment had to itself be Constitutional, prompting dissent from Justice Steven Breyer that there was no way to do that.
In the 41 pages that followed, Breyer explained why he believed it was “highly likely” that the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment. “At the very least, the Court should call for full briefing on the basic question.” Two weeks later, in the first capital case after Glossip, David Zink offered them the means to do so. In his last-minute petition to the Court, Zink presented a question that the Court had not heard in over four decades:
Whether the death penalty today violates evolving standards of decency and concepts of human dignity embodied in the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Eighth Amendment as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment?
So again, this makes sense, Alito has been the hard-hearted one here on the death penalty. But the question of the practice amounting to cruel and unusual punishment is looking like an opinion looking for a case, and hopefully such a case will come soon.