Constitutional Law

ABA asks SCOTUS to overturn Florida law allowing divided juries to recommend death penalty

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The American Bar Association filed an amicus brief (PDF) on Thursday asking the nation’s top court to overturn Florida law allowing a jury to recommend the death penalty by majority vote.

The U.S. Supreme Court appeal concerns the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, a man his lawyers say has limited mental abilities due at least in part to his mother’s drinking before he was born. At issue is a majority jury vote recommending that Hurst should get the death penalty in the brutal 1998 slaying of an assistant manager at the fast-food restaurant where both he and she were employed.

Hurst’s counsel argues that Florida’s sentencing procedure in death penalty cases violates both the Sixth Amendment guarantee of trial by jury and the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, the National Law Journal (sub. req.) reported earlier this year, when the nation’s top court agreed to heard Hurst’s appeal.

The Florida Supreme Court upheld (PDF) the imposition of the death-penalty in Hurst’s case last year. Under Florida law a jury decides, by majority vote, whether to recommend the death penalty and a judge then makes the final decision about whether to impose a capital sentence, if recommended, the opinion notes.

In its opinion, the Florida Supreme Court points to its own earlier decisions finding that a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case, Ring v. Arizona (PDF) does not require a different death penalty sentencing procedure. Jury input is provided in Florida death penalty cases, the state supreme court said, by contrast with the Arizona statute at issue in Ring, which required no jury input. However, both Hurst’s counsel and the ABA say Ring does apply, requiring jury votes to apply the death penalty to be unanimous.

“Unique among all capital punishment jurisdictions in the United States, Florida is the only jurisdiction that allows a jury to determine by majority vote both whether aggravating circumstances have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt and to recommend a sentence of death,” the ABA writes in its argument summary. “Further, Florida does not require that the majority agree on which aggravating factor exists, or even on a single aggravating factor. And the majority does not report which aggravator(s) it finds to the judge, but reports only its recommendation.”

An ABA press release notes that the ABA does not take a position, in general on whether the death penalty should be imposed.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedure in 2012, pointing to a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case that approved it and has never been expressly overruled, the state supreme court said. The 11th Circuit case is Evans v. Secretary, Fla. Dep’t. of Corrections, 699 F.3d 1249, cert. denied, Evans v. Crews, 133 S. Ct. 2393 (2013).

See also:

ABA Journal: “Capital punishment should require unanimity and transparency, say ABA policymakers”

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