In a surprising decision that could affect hundreds of inmates sitting on Florida's death row, the United States Supreme Court has deemed Florida's death penalty statute unconstitutional.
Prior to the ruling in Hurst v. Florida, a judge had the authority to override a jury's recommendation as to the sentence a defendant should receive in a capital murder case. In any captial murder case, the jury first decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the alleged crimes. If the jury finds the defendant guilty of first-degree murder (the only charge for which death is applicable in Florida), the jury then proceeds to the penalty phase of the trial where they will decide whether the defendant should receive life in prison or death.
Now the jury only makes a mere recommendation during the penalty phase. The jury can vote for death and the judge can override the recommendation and sentence the defendant to life.
But on the other hand, the judge can also override a recommendation of life and impose a death sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court, relying on precedent, stated that "any fact that “exposes the defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury’s guilty verdict” is an element that must be submitted to a jury."
In other words, a jury's vote of guilty for a charge of first-degree murder automatically authorizes a judge to sentence the defendant to a mandatory life sentence. To impose a death sentence, the jury must hear evidence that establishes aggravating factors that would warrant a death sentence over a life sentence. As well, the defense is able to present mitigation evidence to the jury that would serve to convince them to vote for life in prison instead.
The Supreme Court said that while a jury can lawfully vote to sentence a person to death, the judge should not be able to override that decision.
The Florida legislature will have to go back to the drawing board and rewrite its death penalty statute. In the meantime, hundreds of defendants who have had jury recommendations of life overriden by judges may be granted new sentencings.
Eric Matheny is a criminal defense attorney serving Miami-Dade and Broward.