WASHINGTON (CNS) — The U.S. Supreme Court Jan. 12 said the state of Florida’s death penalty system is unconstitutional because it allows judges, rather than juries, to determine whether a convicted criminal should get a death sentence.
Michael B. Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops in Tallahassee, said the conference was “pleased this decision was issued so promptly” on what was the first day of Florida’s 2016 legislative session.
“This should compel the Legislature to address the issue immediately,” he said in a statement emailed to Catholic News Service.
Ruling 8-1 in Hurst v. Florida, the high court said that the state’s “capital sentencing scheme” violates the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the amendment, which guarantees the rights of criminal defendants, “requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”
The case is named for Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of the 1998 murder of his manager at a Pensacola, Florida, fast-food restaurant. In Florida, the jury plays an advisory role, deciding if the defendant is eligible for the death penalty, then a judge determines whether that sentence should be imposed.
In Hurst’s case, a jury in 2000 decided 7-5 in favor of putting him to death. He was granted a new sentencing hearing on appeal, and the jury again recommended a death sentence. A judge again found the facts necessary to sentence Hurst to death, and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed that decision.
Hurst’s lawyers in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court argued his sentence violated the Sixth Amendment.
According to an AP story, the Supreme Court returned the case to the Florida Supreme Court, which now must review Hurst’s sentence and determine if he should get a new sentencing hearing.
Justice Sam Alito was the lone dissenter in the ruling. He said that Florida judges are simply reviewing what juries in such cases have already decided.
According to Sheedy, Florida’s Catholic conference, which is the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, “has long identified the need to address Florida’s flawed death sentencing scheme despite our position that life imprisonment without parole is an alternative that keeps society safe and renders the death penalty unnecessary.”
“Florida currently requires unanimous verdicts in every case in which juries are summoned, with the exception of sentencing someone to death,” he continued in his statement to CNS. “We urge the Florida Legislature to respond to this decision by passing legislation which requires juries, as a collective body and conscience of the community, to be unanimous in the finding of aggravating circumstances and in recommending death over life imprisonment.”
In a time of crisis CatholicPhilly.com keeps the information flowing
During the current coronavirus crisis, you can help CatholicPhilly.com deliver the kind of news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live ― every day.
Budgets are tight at this time, and CatholicPhilly's is no different than those of most families. We make sure your donation in any amount will go a long way toward continuing our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community.
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103