SCOTUS Finds Florida Death Penalty Sentencing Procedure Unconstitutional

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January 12, 2016; USA Today

As with other social justice questions being fought at the state level, the movement to eliminate the death penalty must deal not only with its central questions but also with the particulars of state laws and procedures. In some cases, of course, the issues are narrower, but advocates take each ruling and try to make the most of it both for individuals and for the movement as a whole.

Among questions over whether the U.S. Supreme Court will take on a challenge to the death penalty, SCOTUS ruled on Tuesday that part of Florida’s procedure for sentencing inmates to death violated the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees defendants the right to trial and an impartial jury. Specifically, the Court ruled that Florida allowing judges instead of juries to ultimately decide whether a defendant is sentenced to death violates the Constitution. The opinion was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in an 8 to 1 decision, with Justice Samuel Alito being the only dissenting justice.

In Florida, in order to decide whether an inmate receives a death sentence, the judge must first hold an evidentiary hearing in front of a jury. The jury then gives an “advisory sentencing” based on the evidence, with a majority vote deciding whether the inmate receives the death penalty or a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The judge then independently makes his or her own decision on whether the inmate receives the death penalty, potentially disregarding the jury’s sentencing decision. No other state gives a judge this kind of discretion in deliberating a death sentence.

“We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional,” wrote Sotomayor in the opinion. “The 6th 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.”

Florida current has 400 inmates on death row, just behind California as the state with the most inmates on death row. According to Stephen Harper, a law professor who runs the Death Penalty Clinic at Florida International University, the decision will likely not affect the majority of them, who have exhausted their appeals. However, the executions of those inmates who have not exhausted their appeals may be delayed until Florida officials can figure out exactly what the impact will be. The ruling also won’t affect other states that still have the death penalty because they require a unanimous vote by a jury to sentence to death. The ruling does, however, go along with SCOTUS’ 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona in which the court decided that juries, not judges, must be the ones to decide whether the facts of a case mandate a death sentence. In order to do this, juries must consider any aggravating circumstances of the crime.

Therefore, while the decision’s impact on inmates currently on death row may be limited, the ruling is one more indication that this Court is interested in taking up the constitutionality of the death penalty. At the very least, the ruling is a blow to death penalty proponents. The director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, Cassandra Stubbs, said in response to the ruling that the decision “restored the central role of the jury in imposing the death penalty.”—Shafaq Hasan