Florida Supreme Court Declares Death Penalty Law Unconstitutional

On October 14, the Florida Supreme Court issued two decisions finding the state’s capital punishment laws unconstitutional. In one case, Hurst v Florida, the court ruled that that the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution and Florida state law all require unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases, including unanimity as to all aggravating factors to be considered, unanimity that sufficient aggravating factors exist for the imposition of the death penalty, unanimity that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating circumstances, and unanimity in any final jury recommendation for death.

“Requiring unanimous jury recommendations of death before the ultimate penalty may be imposed will ensure that in the view of the jury — a veritable microcosm of the community — the defendant committed the worst of murders with the least amount of mitigation,” the Florida court wrote in ordering a new sentencing hearing for Timothy L. Hurst. Hurst was convicted of the 1998 murder of a co-worker at a restaurant. He was sentenced to death in 2000 and then resentenced in 2012 by a jury vote of 7 to 5.

In a separate case, Perry v Florida, the court found that a new state law adopted earlier this year, which permits imposition of a death sentence when at least 10 of 12 jurors agree, was therefore also unconstitutional, and barred its use in pending criminal cases. TCP filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Perry’s case. The brief argued that a “unanimity requirement promotes careful and thorough evidence-based deliberations, prevents the exclusion or silencing of minority and opposing views in the deliberation process, and increases public confidence in the jury’s sentencing decision.”

Before these two decisions, Florida was one of only two states to allow imposition of a death sentence with a less-than-unanimous jury. It is unclear how many of the 385 inmates on Florida’s death row might be entitled to relief under these rulings.

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