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High Court Curbs Florida Death Penalty Scheme

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Florida's scheme of having judges issue death-penalty sentences after collecting jury recommendations.

Such was the protocol in the sentencing of Timothy Lee Hurst after a jury convicted him of killing Cynthia Harrison at a Popeye's restaurant in Pensacola, Fla., where they both worked.

Harrison's body was discovered in the restaurant freezer on May 2, 1978, bound, gagged and stabbed more than 60 times. Hundreds of dollars had also been stolen from the restaurant safe.

A jury recommended sentencing Hurst to death, and a judge independently agreed, but Hurst had to be resentenced in 2012.

At that second hearing, the jury heard mitigating evidence and was divided 7-5 on imposing the death penalty.

The judge again sentenced Hurst to death independently, having determined that sufficient aggravating factors existed - namely the heinous quality of the murder and the underlying robbery.

After the Florida Supreme Court affirmed, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Hurst a writ of certiorari and reversed 8-1 Tuesday.

The ruling comes after a more than a decade of increasing limitations the court has put on the discretion of sentencing judges. Florida has continued to give judges wide latitude when it comes to sentencing in capital cases, even allowing them to override the sentences handed down by juries.

"We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court Tuesday. "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury's mere recommendation is not enough."

In 10 short pages, Sotomayor ripped through each of the arguments Florida presented to defend the constitutionality of Hurst's sentence without contesting precedent from the court in the 2002 case Ring v. Arizona.

Ring requires "a jury to find every fact necessary to render Hurst eligible for the death penalty," and the advisory scheme that occurred here cannot pass muster, according to the ruling.

"The state fails to appreciate the central and singular role the judge plays under Florida law," Sotomayor wrote. "As described above and by the Florida Supreme Court, the Florida sentencing statute does not make a defendant eligible for death until 'findings by the court that such person shall be punished by death.' The trial court alone must find 'the facts ... that sufficient aggravating circumstances exist' and 'that there are insufficient mitigating circumstances to outweigh the aggravating circumstances.' 'The jury's function under the Florida death penalty statute is advisory only.' The state cannot now treat the advisory recommendation by the jury as the necessary factual finding that Ring requires."

Though Florida noted that Hurst's attorney conceded the occurrence of a robbery, the majority did not see this as an admission to an aggravating factor.

"At most, his counsel simply refrained from challenging the aggravating circumstances in parts of his appellate briefs," the ruling states.

Another section of the decision overrules precedent "to the extent they allow a sentencing judge to find an aggravating circumstance, independent of a jury's factfinding, that is necessary for imposition of the death penalty."

Justice Samuel Alito took issue with this in his dissent, saying he would not overrule the 1989 decision Hildwin v. Florida or the 1984 decision Spaziano v. Florida.

For Alito, it is Ring that needs another look, and Florida's scheme is different enough to avoid extending Ring's holding.

The dissent notes overwhelming evidence the jury heard as to the aggravating factors in Hurst's sentencing.

There is no question that the murder occurred during the robbery, and Hurst's commission of the murder was decided at trial, Alito said.

That Harrison's death was gruesome also cannot be challenged.

"Her injuries included 'facial cuts that went all the way down to the underlying bone,' 'cuts through the eyelid region' and 'the top of her lip,' and 'a large cut to her neck which almost severed her trachea,'" Alito wrote. "It was estimated that death could have taken as long as 15 minutes to occur. The trial court characterized the manner of her death as follows: 'The utter terror and pain that Ms. Harrison likely experienced during the incident is unfathomable. Words are inadequate to describe this death, but the photographs introduced as evidence depict a person bound, rendered helpless, and brutally, savagely, and unmercifully slashed and disfigured. The murder of Ms. Harrison was conscienceless, pitiless, and unnecessarily torturous.'

"In light of this evidence, it defies belief to suggest that the jury would not have found the existence of either aggravating factor if its finding was binding. More than 17 years have passed since Cynthia Harrison was brutally murdered. In the interest of bringing this protracted litigation to a close, I would rule on the issue of harmless error and would affirm the decision of the Florida Supreme Court."

Most of the court joined in the lead opinion, though Justice Stephen Breyer concurred only in judgment. Breyer did the same thing in the 2002 Ring decision.

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