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Supreme Court Rejects Florida Death Penalty Sentencing

Florida Dept. of Corrections
The death chamber at Florida State Prison in Starke.

In a decision a former state Supreme Court justice called "monumental," the U.S. Supreme Courton Tuesday struck down Florida's capital-punishment sentencing system, saying that juries --- not judges--- should be responsible for imposing the death penalty.

The 8-1 decision coincided with the opening day of the 2016 legislative session, sending Republican lawmakers scrambling to address what could have far-reaching implications on death penalty cases throughout the state.

Tuesday's ruling focused on what are known as "aggravating" circumstances that must be found before defendants can be sentenced to death. A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, requires that determination of such aggravating circumstances be made by juries, not judges.

Florida requires juries to make recommendations to judges regarding the death penalty after considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances, with judges ultimately imposing the sentences.

But Florida's unique law giving judges the power to decide whether defendants should face death equates to an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury, Justice Sonya Sotomayor write in the majority opinion.

The high court's decision came in the appeal of convicted murderer Timothy Lee Hurst, who was sentenced to death for the 1998 killing of fast-food worker Cynthia Harrison in Pensacola. Harrison, an assistant manager at a Popeye's Fried Chicken restaurant where Hurst worked, was bound, gagged and stabbed more than 60 times. Her body was found in a freezer.

The jury in the Hurst case recommended a death sentence to the judge, but its vote was split seven to five.

In sentencing Hurst to death, a judge found two aggravating circumstances --- that the murder was committed during a robbery and that it was "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel."

But the decision should not have been the judge's, Sotomayor wrote.

"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," she wrote.

Sotomayor also rejected "a bevy of arguments" made by the state for why Hurst's sentence was constitutional.

"None of them holds water," she wrote.

The majority opinion also overruled two previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings that had upheld Florida's capital sentencing structure.

"Time and subsequent cases have washed away the logic" of those cases, known as Spaziano and Hildwin, Sotomayor wrote.

In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that, at the time of sentencing, judges perform "what amounts, in practical terms, to a reviewing function." While judges can impose a different sentence from that recommended by the jury, the judge must give the jury's recommendation "great weight," Alito wrote.

Harrison's death was so heinous that, if given the opportunity, the jury would have ordered Hurst to be executed anyway, Alito wrote.

It was not immediately apparent whether Tuesday's decision would have an impact on more than 400 Death Row prisoners in the state, which has the nation's second-highest number of inmates sentenced to death, or on two executions that Gov. Rick Scott has scheduled in February and March.

But the decision will likely cause an avalanche of appeals in cases already decided and will certainly affect cases in which sentences have not been imposed, legal experts said.

"This may very, very well stop executions in Florida for quite a time while all of these cases might be pending," said former Florida Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan, a death penalty opponent and one of three former justices who filed briefs supporting Hurst's challenge. "What has happened today is, in my opinion, going to basically cause a moratorium on capital cases until the Supreme Court has time to sort this out."

The decision is likely to spur an avalanche of appeals, Kogan predicted.

"Attorneys who know what they're doing are going to go ahead and file whatever actions they can to prevent their clients from being executed," said Kogan, who described the ruling as "monumental."

Scott told reporters he was reviewing the decision and did not say whether he would put the planned executions on hold. Attorney General Pam Bondi also said she is reviewing the opinion.

Marty McClain, a lawyer who has represented Death Row inmates in Florida for at least two decades, said Tuesday's decision was more complicated than it appeared because it "changes the boundaries" of first-degree murder convictions that result in death sentences.

"How to proceed with death cases in Florida is completely in chaos at the moment until we know what the Legislature and what the (Florida) Supreme Court are going to do," McClain said.

Republican legislative leaders pledged to settle the issue during the legislative session already underway.

"It does create legal challenges in Florida. As a policy maker, I think it will be a high priority for the Legislature to remedy the defects in our death penalty process so that this issue is quickly resolved," said Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who will become Senate president in November and now chairs the committee responsible for criminal justice spending.

The decision striking down the state's death-penalty sentencing structure comes nearly three years after Scott signed into law a bill, sponsored by Negron and Rep. Matt Gaetz, aimed at reducing delays in death penalty cases.

Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said lawmakers are "obligated to step forward and come up with a reasonable solution" to Tuesday's ruling.

"What's important is this is a problem we can fix. This isn't like some Supreme Court decisions which forever bind us to a particular ideology. Here, we simply have to adjust and modernize our death penalty system so that it comports with what the Supreme Court has said, and when we do that I think we'll be right back on track to have a good system in place," he said.