June 28, 2015
TAMPA — Thirteen years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, should decide death sentences, Florida stands alone in how its justice system imposes capital punishment.
“Florida’s capital sentencing system is unique among all 33 American jurisdictions that permit capital punishment,” the American Bar Association says in a brief filed before the nation’s highest court. “Indeed, the Florida Supreme Court has characterized Florida as ‘the outlier state.’ ”
Now the nation’s highest court is poised to consider in its next term whether Florida needs to change its system for deciding whom to execute.
The issue concerns the role of juries in death penalty decisions. It’s an aspect of the state’s system of capital punishment that courts have struggled with for years.
In Florida, as in other states, when defendants are convicted of murder in a death penalty case, juries hear evidence regarding the existence of “aggravating factors,” or aspects of the case that weigh in favor of a death sentence, as well as “mitigating factors,” information that favors a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In recommending a sentence, a jury determines whether aggravating factors in a case outweigh the mitigating circumstances and justify the imposition of a death sentence.
But Florida juries, unlike most other states, are told their decisions are merely advisory, and that the judge will make the ultimate determination over whether to sentence a defendant to death. Trial judges in Florida are required to make their own, independent findings and are permitted to impose sentences different from jury recommendations.
Juries in Florida also are not required to reach unanimous decisions on the existence of specific aggravating factors or on whether to recommend a death sentence.
No other state allows the imposition of a death sentence without jurors either finding unanimously that a specific aggravating factor has been established or unanimously finding that capital punishment is appropriate.
The American Bar Association, which takes no position on the overall constitutionality of the death penalty, is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to direct Florida to make changes and require jurors to specify which aggravating factors they have unanimously found to be present. The association wants the high court to require jurors to unanimously agree on the imposition of death sentences.
The American Bar Association reviewed the state’s death penalty system in 2006 and found the need to improve its fairness and accuracy.
Among the findings was that there was significant confusion among jurors in capital cases. “Research establishes that many Florida capital jurors do not understand their role and responsibilities when deciding whether to impose a death sentence,” the association’s report stated.
The ABA also concluded that not requiring jurors to be unanimous “reduces the jury’s deliberation time and thus may diminish the thoroughness of the deliberations.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 threw out Arizona’s system of capital punishment, ruling it was unconstitutional because judges, not juries, determined the existence of aggravating factors and sentenced defendants to death.
Months later, the Florida Supreme Court left intact the state’s system of capital punishment, concluding that the U.S. Supreme Court had repeatedly reviewed it and found it constitutional.
The state’s high court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear the appeal of one of the Florida defendants challenging the state system, even after it made the Arizona decision.
That Florida appeal involved Amos Lee King, who was later executed for the 1977 murder of Natalie “Tillie” Brady inside her Tarpon Springs home. Brady was raped, stabbed and beaten while King was in a nearby prison work-release program.
The state Supreme Court called in 2005 for the state Legislature to make changes to the state’s death penalty law to require unanimity in jury recommendations. But state lawmakers didn’t act.
In the ensuing years, the state Supreme Court continued to hold that the state’s death penalty system is constitutional. One of those rulings came in the Escambia County case of Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of murdering coworker Cynthia Harrison in a robbery at Popeye’s restaurant on May 2, 1998.
The state Supreme Court initially upheld Hurst’s conviction and death sentence but later granted him a new penalty phase hearing on the grounds his original defense lawyer failed to properly present and investigate mitigating evidence relating to his borderline intelligence and possible brain damage. At the conclusion of the second sentencing hearing, jurors returned a verdict of 7-5 in favor of death.
Hurst appealed again to the state Supreme Court, which upheld his death sentence, rejecting arguments that included assertions the jury should have been required to unanimously find a specific aggravating circumstance and unanimously decide his sentence.
The state Supreme Court noted in its Hurst ruling that it has previously concluded that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Arizona case did not require juries to make specific findings of aggravating factors or to make unanimous decisions regarding death sentences. The Florida court refused to revisit its prior rulings.
Hurst also argued the jury should have been required to determine whether he was mentally disabled, a finding that would have barred the implementation of the death penalty. After hearing testimony from witnesses and experts, the trial judge ruled that Hurst was not mentally disabled.
The state Supreme Court ruled that although some states require such findings be made by juries, Florida is not one of those states, and the U.S. Supreme Court has not mandated that procedure.
Hurst appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in its next term, which begins in October.