US Supreme Court Overturns Florida’s Method for Imposing the Death Penalty

In a decision today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s method for imposing the death penalty unconstitutional. Florida’s system, up until this point, has been to use both a jury and a judge to determine whether or not a defendant will receive a death sentence. The Supreme Court ruled that only a jury can decide whether or not a death penalty will be imposed, and Florida’s system of having a judge make that decision based on the jury’s recommendation violates the Sixth Amendment.

Up until today, Florida’s method of deciding punishment in capitol cases has been this:

  1. The jury determines whether or not the defendant is guilty of the crime beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt (also called the “guilt phase”);
  2. If the jury finds that the defendant is guilty, they move on to determining the sentence (also called the “penalty phase”);
  3. In the penalty phase the jury hears evidence about the defendant including his background, mental condition, etc., as well as details about the crime, and makes a recommendation to the judge that the defendant be sentenced to either life in prison or death;
  4. The judge takes the jury’s recommendation and then makes a determination of whether or not the defendant is deserving of the death penalty in light of the evidence presented.

In a previous case the Supreme Court ruled that only a jury can find the facts necessary to impose the death penalty. Because Florida’s law gives a judge the ability to impose the death penalty instead of a jury, the Court held that it was unconstitutional.

Does this mean Florida will abandon the death penalty? Probably not. Look for the Florida legislature to work hard and fast in the upcoming legislative session to ensure the state can keep executing the second-highest death row population in the country.