Justices Won’t Review Florida Death-Penalty Cases

(CN) – Three liberal justices dissented Monday from the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of a challenge to Florida’s death-sentencing procedures, saying the high court should have decided whether jurors being told their verdict was merely advisory diminished their sense of responsibility.

In March 2010, Quentin Marcus Truehill and two cellmates at the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office in Mansura, Louisiana, held the holding-cell officer hostage, according to court records.

Truehill then attacked the booking officer with a shank, and the three men escaped. They stole a truck and committed a series of crimes on their way from Louisiana to Miami, Florida.

The decomposed body of Vincent Binder was found in an open field near St. Augustine, Fla., soon after police learned that Truehill used Binder’s credit card the night he went missing.

Truehill was convicted of murdering and kidnapping Binder, and was sentenced to death.

He appealed, but the Florida Supreme Court affirmed his convictions and sentence in February, finding that he was more culpable for the crime than a co-defendant who received life in prison and equally or more culpable than another who was also sentenced to death.

In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down Florida’s practice of having judges issue death-penalty sentences after collecting jury recommendations.

The case stemmed from the sentencing of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of killing a fast-food worker during a robbery in May 1978.

Hurst stabbed his bound and gagged victim, Cynthia Harrison, more than 60 times before leaving her in the restaurant freezer. The jury quickly convicted him of the crime, but was sharply divided over imposing the death penalty.

Under the existing Florida law, judges had wide latitude when it came to sentencing in capital cases, even allowing them to override the sentences handed down by juries.

In the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reversed that decision and held the state sentencing scheme unconstitutional, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote “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.”

Florida responded by passing a new law that requires at least 10 of 12 jurors to recommend execution, and then, only after they’ve unanimously decided at least one “aggravating factor” related to the crime justifies it.

But in a pair of rulings, the Florida Supreme Court said the new state law was still unconstitutional because it continued to allow a partial panel to recommend the death penalty “as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, 12-member jury.”

Meanwhile, Truehill appealed his case to the Supreme Court, arguing that he was sentenced to death without any of the required findings outlined in the Hurst v. Florida decision.

On Monday, the nation’s high court denied petitions for certiorari from Truehill and another capital defendant, Terence Oliver.

Justice Sotomayor wrote a two-page dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

She said the Supreme Court “has not in the past hesitated to vacate and remand a case when a court has failed to address an im­portant question that was raised below.”

“At least twice now, capital defendants in Florida have raised an important Eighth Amendment challenge to their death sentences that the Florida Supreme Court has failed to address. Specifically, those capital defendants, peti­tioners here, argue that the jury instructions in their cases impermissibly diminished the jurors’ sense of responsibil­ity as to the ultimate determination of death by repeatedly emphasizing that their verdict was merely advisory,” Sotomayor wrote.

She added, “Because petitioners here raised a potentially meritorious Eighth Amendment chal­lenge to their death sentences, and because the stakes in capital cases are too high to ignore such constitutional challenges, I dissent from the Court’s refusal to correct that error.

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