U.S. Supreme Court Rules Florida Death Penalty UnconstitutionalPublished: Feb 10, 2016 by Erika Valcarcel
Last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling has overturned the Florida process of handing down the death penalty, making it unconstitutional. In an 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court determined that the Florida process of issuing the death penalty gave too much power to judges, not juries, violating defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights.
Under the Sixth Amendment, Americans are given the right to a trial by a jury, but the death penalty sentencing process only allowed jurors to advise on whether or not the death penalty would be issued. The final ruling used to be made by a judge who had no obligation to adhere to the jury’s ruling, although they rarely overturned the verdict in practice. The problem, however, is that since the jury only advises, not issues sentences, no unanimous vote is required to issue an execution and they did not report the aggravating factor that played into their decision on the death penalty.
You see, to recommend a death sentence, a jury must agree on at least one aggravating factor that makes a murder so horrific that the perpetrator deserves execution rather than life in prison. This means that under the old Florida system, the judge who issues the ultimate sentence has no way of understanding what aggravating factor justified the death penalty to the jury. Instead, the judge decided using their own reasoning, which cannot be proven to be in accordance with the jury’s reasoning or not, superseding the power of the jury in direct violation of the Sixth Amendment.
How Will This Ruling Affect Capital Cases in Florida?
Until the now-illegal process of issuing death sentences can be addressed by the Florida legislature, no new death sentences can be handed down. This has stopped many cases in their tracks and caused others to defer the option of the death penalty. While the ruling has not abolished the death penalty for good, it has stopped its use in Florida temporarily until a new process can be written and approved in the State Capitol.
Not only does this ruling require Florida courts to change the process by which the death penalty is issued before capital cases can be settled, but it also has potential implications for the many inmates currently on death row. It is unclear whether or not the ruling applies retroactively to the almost 400 people in Florida currently awaiting execution. Civil liberties groups are already claiming a need to re-sentence those defendants whose fate was decided without a unanimous vote in favor of the death penalty. For now, it is unclear how many of these inmates will be granted a new hearing, but already one execution has been deferred while the new process is put in place. Those on death row are currently discussing their options with lawyers, with many requesting new hearings or appeals already.
In the meantime, defendants accused of capital crimes may not face the possibility of the death penalty right away, although the new process is likely to be determined by the Legislature soon. No matter what happens, future convicts may face a fairer sentencing process, but the threat of the death penalty — or at least life in prison — still looms. If you’ve been accused of a death penalty offense, or even a relatively minor misdemeanor, it’s important that you get an experienced Florida criminal defense lawyer to help develop a defense strategy that will get your case the best outcome possible. Call Erika Valcarcel at Erika Valcarcel, Criminal Defense Lawyer, P.A. today at (941) 363-7900 to set up your free consultation and find out how we can help.