Civil and Human Rights

U.S. Supreme Court nixes Florida death penalty process

By Nick Gass


The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that Florida’s death penalty sentencing process violates the constitutional rights of criminal defendants.


In an 8-1 decision, the justices held that the state’s sentencing method grants too much power to judges and too little to juries, thus violating the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury. While the court’s opinion in Hurst v. Florida is limited to that state’s practices specifically, it could affect Florida’s other death-row inmates, which total 390 in number.


In this particular case, the court sided with death-row inmate Timothy Hurst, who was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering a restaurant manager at the Popeyes franchise in Pensacola where he worked in 1998. Hurst’s attorneys had argued that the 37-year-old was mentally disabled, with an IQ of between 70 and 78.


“The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion. “This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s factfinding. Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional.”


The Constitutional Accountability Center, which filed an amicus brief in the case with the American Civil Liberties Union, hailed the decision. 


“The Court affirmed in unequivocal terms the importance of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury, with only Justice Alito in dissent,” said Brianne Gorod, appellate counsel for the Constitutional Accountability Center. “The Court made clear that a state cannot impose a death sentence without a jury making the factual findings required by law.”

More from Civil and Human Rights