SCOTUS to consider constitutionality of Florida capital sentencing; judges decide mental disability

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The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide the constitutionality of Florida’s death-sentencing scheme in which judges rather than jurors determine whether a defendant is mentally disabled.

The Supreme Court granted cert on Monday in the case of Timothy Hurst, sentenced to death for a May 1998 murder of a Popeye’s restaurant manager based on a 7-5 jury recommendation, according to the cert petition (PDF) and Florida’s brief in opposition (PDF). The victim’s body was found bound and gagged in the freezer, with multiple stab wounds. SCOTUSblog notes the cert grant.

Jurors noted as aggravating factors that the murder occurred during a robbery of the restaurant and that it was especially heinous. In mitigation, they noted the defendant’s age and the fact that he had no prior criminal history. They also found as nonstatutory mitigation that Hurst had limited mental capacity.

The evidence showed that Hurst may have had fetal alcohol syndrome, according to the cert petition. He tended to slur his words, was slow in learning to walk and did poorly in school. The trial judge found Hurst was not intellectually disabled after determining he was able to hold a job, to get a driver’s license, to recall telephone numbers, to give directions and to try to hide his crime.

On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court held that the jury does not have a constitutional obligation to determine whether the defendant is mentally disabled.

The cert grant was limited to one question: Whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of Ring v. Arizona, a 2002 Supreme Court decision that held jurors, rather than judges, must decide in a trial’s penalty phase whether aggravating factors justify a death sentence.

The state argued in its brief that Ring applies to the need for jurors to find aggravating factors but not mitigating factors.

Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, notes that Florida has executed several inmates—39 in all, according to the Death Penalty Information Center—since the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Ring. He suspects many of those executed inmates had alleged a Sixth or Eighth Amendment violation in light of Ring, he says in a post at his Sentencing Law and Policy blog.

“If there is some kind of afterlife for executed murderers,” Berman says, “I expect there will now be some interesting SCOTUS talk in the Florida section of that netherworld.”

The case is Hurst v. Florida.

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