Florida Rules Death Penalty Law Unconstitutional

An inmate's cuffed hands.

Image: Shutterstock

Florida State’s Supreme Court struck down an important law regarding the death penalty this week. The law in question allows that judges rather than juries can decide whether criminals deserve the death penalty. The current law is not in line with the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which specifies that a jury must find each fact necessary to impose the sentence.

This is a significant change in Florida’s system, a state that has 400 inmates sitting on Death Row. However, most of those prisoners are unlikely to be affected because they have already run out of appeals or their convictions were based on indisputable aggravating circumstances, says USA TODAY; however, that is not necessarily true. Robert Durham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, believes that the ruling would affect the “majority” of Florida’s Death Row inmates.

Currently, Florida judges can impose the death penalty even if a jury has not agreed on it unanimously—meaning that the entirety of that power lies with the judge, who could be flawed or entrenched in their own ideas, as most people are. Justice Sonia Sotomayer wrote the decision for an almost-unanimous Supreme Court, though Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

Alito argued that past Supreme Court rulings allowed judges to establish the facts that eventually warranted a death sentence, though he acknowledged the importance of the jury in Florida’s proceedings.

Among the inmates the new ruling could affect is Timothy Hurst, who was convicted of murdering a co-worker in 1998. His case could return to the lower courts where a new conviction could be reached. But that’s not good news for Connie Fuselier, the mother of the co-worker Hurst stabbed.

Fuselier says she does not care if Hurst is executed now, but she cannot bear the thought of yet more legal proceedings. “It’s been hell,” she says. “When you get to thinking it’s over with, it starts all over again. It’s nerve-wracking.”

Still, Dunham believes all death penalty cases could be affected. “Every defendant in Florida whose death sentence was imposed in this matter will be challenging the constitutionality of his or her death sentence,” he said.

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