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U.S. Supreme Court Decision Temporarily Throws Florida’s Death Machine Into Disarray and Prompts Change to State’s Death Penalty

by David M. Reutter

Following the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616 (2016), which concluded that Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment and was thus unconstitutional, the state’s death machine came to a screeching halt and was in complete disarray for several months.

In Hurst, the Supreme Court held that Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because it allowed a sentencing judge on his or her own to find aggravating circumstances, independent of the jury’s findings, necessary for the imposition of the death penalty. The Court stated, “The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury. 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…is therefore unconstitutional.”

The Court’s declaration that Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedure was unconstitutional prompted the state legislature to pass a new law. The new death penalty statute required jurors to make factual findings and 10 of the 12 jurors had to agree to the imposition of the death penalty. However, in October 2016, the Florida Supreme Court in Perry v. State, 210 S.3d 630 (Fla. 2016), concluded that the new law was unconstitutional because it did not require a unanimous, 12-member jury for the recommendation of the death penalty and thus it could not be applied to pending prosecutions. 

The Florida death machine was once again thrown into disarray. Even more confusion reigned for about two hours on January 4, 2017. That morning, the state’s high court issued an opinion denying the state’s “request for clarification” of the Perry ruling. Less than two hours after the release of that order, it was revoked and vacated.

Order was restored in early 2017 by the Florida Supreme Court and the legislature. In February, the Supreme Court held that the death penalty statute could be constitutionally applied to pending prosecutions, as long as the jury is unanimous in recommending death. Evans v. State, So.3d 856 (Fla. 2017). Then in March 2017, the legislature amended the portions of the 2016 statute that the Perry Court found constitutionally problematic, i.e., the statute now requires a unanimous jury to recommend the death sentence. Accordingly, Florida’s death machine is back on track. See: Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616 (2016). 

Additional sources: Evans v. State, So.3d 856 (Fla. 2017); Perry v. State, 210 S.3d 630 (Fla. 2016); 

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Related legal case

Hurst v. Florida



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