Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Provision of Florida’s Death Statute
Last week, in Hurst v. Florida, the Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. Timothy Lee Hurst challenged the legality of his death sentence because the Florida statute allowed the judge to overrule the recommendation of a jury and decide whether the facts exist to justify a death sentence.
Fourteen years ago, in Ring v. Arizona, the Supreme Court held that the 6th Amendment requires juries to decide whether the facts of a case warrant a death sentence. Mr. Hurst was sentenced to death in 1998 for the murder of his co-worker Cynthia Harrison.
The Court’s decision puts to rest one problematic aspect of the Florida death statute but now highlights another: Unlike most other states, a jury’s recommendation for death need not be unanimous. Given the unique severity of a death sentence, other states have required all jurors to agree on the punishment. (only Alabama and Delaware have similar schemes)
Florida has argued that it is ok for a person to be sentenced to death by a simple majority of jurors because the jury’s recommendation is only advisory. However, now that death penalty decision-making is clearly and squarely in the jury’s court, that argument should no longer stand.
As a result of the Court’s decision last week we can expect a new round of tinkering with Florida’s machinery of death—but to what effect? Florida’s death penalty system was broken long before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hurst. Florida leads the nation in wrongful capital convictions. Twenty-six people have been released from Florida’s death row because of innocence since 1973. A study released two days after the Hurst decision found that Florida executions present stark racial, gender and geographic disparities. Executions were found to be 6.5 times more likely for the murders of white females than for the murder of African American males. The study also found:
• 72% of all executions carried out in Florida between 1976 and 2014 were for crimes involving White victims despite the fact that 56% of all homicide victims are White.
• Only 26% of all homicide victims are female, but 43% of all executions carried out in Florida were for homicides involving female victims.
• No White person has been executed in Florida for a homicide involving a Black victim. In contrast, 71% of the executions carried out against Black inmates were for homicides involving White victims. In cases where Black inmates were executed, 56% of all of the victims were White.
Florida was one of three outlier states that accounted for more than half all new death sentences in the country in 2015 when overall death sentences and executions dwindled. Florida has the second largest death row in the country.
Is it worth it? Floridians have an opportunity to ask this important question, look at the facts and come to the same conclusion many others have: no. We know what works to keep our communities safe: greater investments in education, job creation and training, mental health services and real tangible financial and emotional support for all victims of crime.
Now is the time for Florida citizen’s to insist that lawmakers #HaltAllExecutions and take a closer look at what progress might be made in the state if it were not saddled with an unwieldy, unfair and inaccurate death penalty scheme.
Talk about this with your friends and family living in Florida. Speak out on social media and participate in the conversation. Take the pledge to be a part of ending the death penalty in Florida and everywhere else that this pointless and cruel practice remains in the U.S.