U.S. Supreme Court: Florida Death Penalty Sentencing is Unconstitutional

By Shani Saxon-Parrish Jan 13, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday, January 12, that a Florida death row inmate’s sentencing was unconstitutional. The issue is that, although a jury recommended the death penalty for Timothy Lee Hurst, the judge in the case held a separate hearing and determined there were sufficient aggravating circumstances to impose the death penalty, CNN reports.

"We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional," the high court ruling said. "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s recommendation is not enough.”

Hurst, 37, was convicted of murdering co-worker Cynthia Harrison in 1998 and filed the challenge to his sentencing. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor 8-1 before sending Hurst’s case to the Florida Supreme Court for further proceedings "not inconsistent with this opinion.”

This certainly opens the door for similar challenges to be filed in Florida and across the country. Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, told CNN that "states like Alabama and Delaware also delegate some death sentencing decisions to judges instead of juries."

"This shows that the Supreme Court continues to apply close scrutiny to the death penalty,” Stubbs said. “I think it’s really a harbinger of the day coming when the Supreme Court is going to strike it down."

There are currently 3,108 death row inmates in the Unites States. Rounding the percentages, Blacks make up 42 percent of those prisoners; 43 percent are White; 13 percent are Latino, and Asians make up 1.4 percent.

Legal analyst Mark McBride, a criminal defense attorney in California, told CNN that the Florida Supreme Court "will order—and quite soon—that prisoners who had been sentenced under the current, albeit flawed, scheme will have their sentences commuted to life without the possibility of parole."