Hurst v. Florida

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Hurst v. Florida.


Can Florida’s death sentencing scheme be considered constitutional if it does not require jury unanimity in capital cases and it consigns the jury to an advisory role in sentencing?

Oral argument: 
October 13, 2015
Court below: 

The Supreme Court will consider whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme is constitutional in light of Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002). Convicted murderer Timothy Lee Hurst argues that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme is unconstitutional in light of Ring. Hurst contends that the jury’s advisory verdict does not satisfy the requirements of Ring and violates the Constitution because the it minimizes the jury’s sense of responsibility and subverts the jury’s deliberative function by assigning the fact-finding role to the trial court judge. Florida argues that its sentencing framework is constitutional because it complies with the requirements of Ring and ensures that a judge’s sole determination will not necessitate a sentence of death for a defendant. The Court’s decision will determine the constitutionality of Florida’s death sentencing scheme, and may impact the individual cases of prisoners who have been sentenced to death in Florida.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Does Florida’s death sentencing scheme violate the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002)?


On May 2, 1998, Cynthia Lee Harrison was killed at a Popeye’s Fried Chicken restaurant in Escambia County, Florida, where she worked as an assistant manager. Following a jury trial, Timothy Lee Hurst was found guilty of first-degree murder during the guilt phase of the trial. Hurst filed an initial amended post-conviction proceeding in circuit court, where he questioned the evidence presented by the state. Hurst also argued that his defense counsel was ineffective in investigating and presenting mitigating evidence regarding his history of mental retardation during his initial penalty phase proceeding.On appeal from denial of post-conviction relief, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed all but one of Hurst’s post-conviction claims. The court subsequently reversed the denial of relief on Hurst’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, and remanded the case for a new penalty phase proceeding.

At the second penalty phase proceeding, the parties presented new evidence, in which Florida provided an abbreviated version of the trial testimony regarding the circumstances of the murder, and Hurst presented testimony concerning his history of mental health issues. The jury, after receiving this new evidence, “returned a recommendation of death by a seven-to-five vote.” Before sentencing, the trial court held a Spencer hearing, where Hurst’s counsel presented further argument to strengthen Hurst’s mental retardation claims. The trial court sentenced Hurst to death, and indicated that it had independently weighed the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and given the jury’s recommendation great weight in its decision.

Hurst appealed the death sentence to the Florida Supreme Court arguing that: (1) the trial court erred when it refused to grant a separate evidentiary hearing on his mental retardation claim; (2) in light of Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), the trial court had committed a constitutional error, because the jury had neither been required to find specific facts regarding aggravating factors, nor were they required to make unanimous sentencing recommendations; and (3) his death sentence was not proportional. The court rejected Hurst’s arguments and affirmed the death sentence, holding that the Sixth Amendment does not require that the imposition of death sentences be made by the jury, and that Ring does not require the jury to make either specific findings of aggravators or a unanimous jury recommendation.


In this case, the Supreme Court will determine the constitutionality of Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme. Hurst contends that Florida’s scheme is unconstitutional, because Florida juries are not required to make express findings regarding aggravating circumstances, contrary to the Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona. Hurst also argues that a simple majority vote of juries violates both the Sixth and Eighth Amendments. Finally, Hurst maintains that Florida’s scheme unconstitutionally interferes with the jury’s deliberative function. But Florida contends that juries are clearly instructed that they must find aggravating circumstances, and that the Court has approved the use of simple majority votes in death-eligible cases. Finally, Florida argues that the scheme does not interfere with the jury’s deliberative function, because the Constitution does not require jury-determined sentences.


Hurst contends that Florida’s death sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment as interpreted by Ring. In Ring, Hurst explains, the Court held that the Sixth Amendment requires juries to find aggravating circumstances when imposing the death penalty. Hurst argues that Florida’s scheme fails to meet this requirement, because juries are merely instructed to take aggravating factors into account when recommending a death sentence, but they are not required to make any express findings as to which aggravating factors they found. Moreover, regardless of the jury’s recommendation, Hurst explains, Florida judges engage in a separate process to determine which, if any, specific aggravating circumstances were present, allowing judges to consider evidence never before the jury during its deliberation and thereby rendering the jury’s recommendation “advisory.” Hurst contends that mere “input” from the jury is not enough to satisfy the Sixth Amendment or Ring, which require explicit findings of aggravating circumstances. That judges must find specific aggravating circumstances is not enough to cure the Ring violation, Hurst contends, because a jury’s recommendation of a death sentence does not imply that the circumstances were found; it is impossible to know whether a majority of the jurors voted in favor of any of the aggravating circumstances.

Florida claims that the scheme is constitutional because juries are instructed that they cannot recommend a death sentence without finding at least one aggravating factor. Florida maintains that even though juries do not disclose to the judge which aggravating circumstances they chose, a death sentence recommendation implies that juries found at least one aggravating factor. According to Florida, Ring only established a requirement that juries must find an aggravating factor in order to make a person eligible for the death penalty, and Florida’s scheme does that. Florida contends that the scheme cannot violate Ring, because Ring does not address the subsequent step under Florida’s scheme, in which judges decide whether a death sentence is appropriate. Moreover, Florida claims that its death-sentencing scheme provides additional protections to defendants by providing a hybrid system in which both the jury and the judge decide whether a death sentence is appropriate. Moreover, Florida believes that since a death sentence is linked to a judge’s “detailed, written findings,” Florida’s scheme includes the opportunity for meaningful review if a case is appealed.


Hurst argues that allowing a simple majority vote in a capital punishment case violates both the Sixth and Eighth Amendments, “because no inference can be drawn from the jury’s recommendation that more than seven jurors found an aggravator.” Hurst maintains that a lack of unanimity threatens the safeguards of fairness required in a jury trial. Furthermore, Hurst notes that a simple majority conflicts with Florida’s “own judgment that unanimity is necessary for all jury findings of guilt.” Hurst argues that the Court has never allowed a simple-majority rule in jury verdicts for criminal cases.

Florida maintains that a simple majority vote is constitutional. Florida contends that the Court has allowed non-unanimous verdicts in state courts, citing Apodaca v. Oregon, 406 U.S. 404 (1972), in which the Court acknowledged that the Sixth Amendment does not require 12-person unanimous juries, so long as the jury imbues the trial with the “commonsense judgment of a group of laymen.” Furthermore, Florida maintains that Apodaca should not be overturned because various states have relied on Apodaca’s four-decade-old decision by implementing systems in which a unanimous jury vote is not required. Moreover, Florida maintains that unanimity does not generate more thoughtful deliberations. Hurst counters that Apodaca does not apply in his case because the Court allowed a super-majority vote (e.g., 10-2) in a non-capital case, rather than a simple-majority in a capital case.


Hurst contends that Florida’s death sentencing procedure is unconstitutional because it interferes the deliberative process of the jury. Hurst further argues that Florida’s system is unconstitutional because judges decide whether a death sentence is appropriate. Hurst contends by doing so, Florida’s sentencing scheme deprives the jury of “adequate group deliberation” and “responsible fact-finding” by relegating the jury to an advisory role. Hurst maintains that under Florida’s current death sentencing procedure, his jury deliberation was “hollow” and therefore should be vacated.

Florida argues that its death sentencing scheme does not undermine the jury’s role, because the Constitution does not require jury sentencing. Florida cites Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U.S. 446 (1984), which held that capital sentencing determinations do not have to be made by the jury. Moreover, Florida argues that Harris v. Alabama, 513 U.S. 504 (1995), further establishes that “[t]he Constitution permits the trial judge, acting alone, to impose a capital sentence.” Ultimately, Florida argues that the trial judge owes no deference to jury recommendations; therefore, Florida’s death sentencing scheme does not subvert the jury’s role.


This case presents the Supreme Court with the opportunity to determine whether Florida’s capital-sentencing scheme is constitutional under Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002). Hurst urges the Court to rule that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme is unconstitutional, because it assigns the jury’s fact-finding role to the judge and does not require unanimity in capital sentencing. Florida maintains that its sentencing framework is constitutional because it complies with Ring and ensures that the decision to impose a death sentence is not made by only a judge. The Court’s decision will clarify whether a judge can impose a death sentence based on an advisory jury verdict, and whether a jury’s finding of aggravating circumstances must be unanimous.


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in support of Hurst, argues that although the Sixth Amendment does not explicitly impose a unanimity requirement in capital cases, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution were united in the view that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury encompasses the common law right to unanimity in capital cases.The ACLU argues that allowing a jury to recommend a death sentence without a unanimous vote ignores this long-established requirement. contends that when a defendant has not waived his right to a jury trial, the court cannot itself impose capital punishment, unless the sentence is based on aggravating factors identified by a unanimous jury as proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Moreover, the ABA maintains that allowing judicial independence in capital sentence is contrary to the Court’s holding in Ring, which requires a jury to find aggravating circumstances.

However, Alabama and Montana (the “States”) argue that there is no historical constitutional requirement for jury unanimity, and that the Framers expressly rejected the preservation of common law jury requisites. These states acknowledge that jury unanimity is important to the adjudication of guilt, but argue that societal consensus is irrelevant to the question of sentencing.


The ABA argues that allowing Florida judicial independence in capital sentencing may result in death sentences that are imposed arbitrarily. The ACLU also contends that relegating the jury to an advisory role and basing capital punishments on a majority vote diminishes the heightened reliability requirement needed to withstand Eighth Amendment scrutiny. The ACLU therefore argues that such judgments will not meet the consensus for determining a humane and just death sentence. Furthermore, former Florida Circuit Court judges argue that the goal of retribution would not be achieved since the judgment will reflect the opinion of the court, and not the conscience of the community as represented by the jury.

But the States maintain that the Eighth Amendment is concerned with the imposition of sentences based on the nature of the offense, and not the process by which a state determines an appropriate punishment. Furthermore, they argue that Florida’s sentencing scheme is constitutional under Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), in which the Court held it unconstitutional for juries to impose a death sentence wholly unguided by governing standards. Alabama and Florida contend that because Florida developed its current sentencing system in response to the Court’s decision in Furman, Florida should be permitted to create a system where the jury plays an advisory role if the judgment rendered would meet governing standards and is not arbitrary.


The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will determine whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme is constitutional in light of Ring v. Arizona. While the State of Florida argues that Florida’s sentencing framework complies with Ring and is constitutional, Hurst contends that Florida’s scheme violates the Sixth and Eighth Amendments. The Supreme Court’s decision will impact the lives of prisoners sentenced to death under Florida’s capital punishment sentencing scheme.

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