Today, by an 8-1 vote (Justice Alito dissenting), the US Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme in Hurst v Florida. This is huge news in Alabama as our death penalty sentencing scheme is very similar.
Under Florida law, a capital offense only exposes a defendant to a punishment of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (“LWOP”). A defendant can be sentenced to death only after the court makes additional findings. Essentially, after the guilt phase, a court conducts a sentencing hearing where a jury will make a sentencing recommendation of LWOP or death. This recommendation is purely advisory. Then, the sentencing judge makes a determination of whether to impose LWOP or death.
The Court found this scheme violates Ring v. Arizona, which held that all facts necessary to impose death must be found by the jury. Only judicial — and not jury — fact-finding can expose a defendant to death under Florida law. Pursuant to Ring, this scheme violates the Sixth Amendment.
In Alabama, we have a similar scheme; however, by statute, a capital conviction exposes a defendant to LWOP or death — a Florida conviction, standing alone, only exposes a defendant to LWOP. After receiving a recommendation from the jury, the Alabama judge makes the final determination of what sentence to impose. So the sentencing decision still falls upon the judge in Alabama.
Whether the Alabama system holds a distinction without a real difference from the Florida law will be litigated in the very near future. Regardless, the reins have been tightened a little more on the death penalty.
For more information on the decision, click here.