In what may be considered a surprise ruling, the United States Supreme Court has struck down Florida’s death penalty law. And while the ruling is specific to Florida, and not the death penalty in general, the decision emphasizes just how important the jury system is to our constitution.
Florida’s Death Penalty System
Traditionally, the death penalty has been contested on the grounds that it constitutes unfair and cruel punishment, which is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. Usually, that argument fails in federal courts.
But this case was different because it dealt with a Florida law that allowed a jury to “recommend” whether the death penalty should be imposed. In fact, the law did not even require the jury find specific factors, supporting why they would advise or not advise the death penalty.
Unlike in a traditional jury system, in Florida the judge had the legal authority to make factual findings and then, if the judge felt it warranted, to ignore the jury and find differently than the jurors. The jurors’ decision to impose or not impose the death penalty really was simply a recommendation.
Judges had used that authority willingly. By one count, judges had found differently than juries in 300 occasions (although that number includes situations in which the jury may have recommended the death penalty and the judge imposed a lesser sentence).
Law Undermines Right to a Jury
As you may have guessed by now, the challenge to the law was that it takes the decision out of the jury’s hands, thus denying the criminal defendant the constitutional right to trial by jury.
What makes the case even more surprising is that Florida’s law had been challenged and upheld in the past. Usually, courts abide by precedent—that is, they are reluctant to overturn something they decided a certain way in the past. But here, the Court noted that time and society had changed their previous opinion.
That is likely recognition of how many states deal with the death penalty the same way that Florida did—very few have the “recommendation” system that Florida used. In 2002, the Supreme Court actually struck down an Arizona law similar to Florida’s.
The question of whether the ruling is retroactive will likely be determined by the Florida Supreme Court on a case by case basis. So people on death row right now will likely have to mount their own individual challenges on a constitutional basis to lower their sentences.
As of today, only Alabama has a law similar to Florida’s. The recent case is hardly a denouncement of the death penalty itself, and will have limited effect on any attempt to invalidate it, unless there are laws that take decisions out of the jury’s hands.
If you are arrested or charged with a crime make sure that all of your constitutional rights are protected at every stage. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights.