The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Florida's process of allowing judges, not juries, to decide whether to impose the death penalty is unconstitutional.
The 8-1 vote — Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter — reverses a 2014 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered the court's opinion, writing: "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 has nearly 400 prisoners on death row, the highest number of any state except California. It's not clear how Tuesday's decision will affect those Florida inmates, but it could lead to a number of death row cases being readjudicated.
The ruling stems from the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted in the 1998 murder of a co-worker at a restaurant in Pensacola, Fla., as NPR's Gregory Allen reports.
"After finding him guilty, the jury was divided 7-5 in favor of capital punishment," Allen says. "In Florida, it's the judge, not the jury that decides whether to impose the death penalty, and the judge sentenced Hurst to death."
At the heart of the high court ruling was the fact that the judge, rather than the jury, was responsible for "fact finding" that led to Hurst receiving the death penalty. Sotomayor summed up the proceedings in the opinion:
"A Florida jury convicted Timothy Lee Hurst of murdering his co-worker, Cynthia Harrison. A penalty-phase jury recommended that Hurst's judge impose a death sentence. Notwithstanding this recommendation, Florida law required the judge to hold a separate hearing and determine whether sufficient aggravating circumstances existed to justify imposing the death penalty. The judge so found and sentenced Hurst to death. We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional."
As the Miami Herald reports, "In 27 of the 31 states that maintain the death penalty, the jury makes the final decision whether to impose the death penalty. Only Florida, Alabama, Delaware and Montana leave the final sentencing decision up to the trial judge."