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SCOTUS Tosses Fla. Death Penalty Sentencing Structure

jury box
John Jackson via Flickr
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Hundreds of Florida death penalty sentences are in limbo Tuesday after the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the way the state sentences people to death.

The ruling could lead state lawmakers to require unanimous juries.

Close to 20 years ago, Timothy Hurst shot and killed his manager at a Pensacola Popeyes restaurant. A jury voted 7-to-5 to sentence Hurst to death based on what are called aggravating factors, those case specifics that warrant execution. That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court says is unconstitutional.

“What this case says is that when a jury makes a finding of fact that could increase the sentence to death, that decision must be separately found by the jury and be unanimous,” says Jacksonville lawyer Hank Coxe “That way, the judge isn't on his or her own making those decisions.”

Coxe says the Supreme Court decision isn't surprising because the high court already declared in 2002 juries have sole responsibility for deciding the aggravating factors, those case specifics that warrant execution.

It’s unclear whether the new ruling will apply retroactively to the hundreds of people on death row.

“I’ll put it in the words of senior prosecutor earlier today when he and I were discussing this. His reaction was, ‘This decision puts Florida’s death penalty in limbo until the Legislature takes some steps,’” he says.

One way to do that would be to pass a bill sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman (R-Altamonte Springs). His measure would require unanimous juries in all death penalty decisions, not just when deciding aggravating circumstances. Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami) is sponsoring identical legislation in the House.

Florida is one of only three states, including Alabama and Delaware, where a unanimous jury decision is not needed to sentence someone to death. Those three states contribute 28 percent of all U.S. death sentences since 2010, according to a recent study conducted by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.  The study also found requiring unanimity could drop death sentences in Florida by close to 70 percent.

It also shows Duval County has one of the nation’s highest rates of death sentences since 2010.