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SCOTUS Strikes Down Florida's Death Penalty Sentencing Method

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On an 8-1 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday struck down Florida’s system of allowing judges, and not juries, to decide whether convicted murderers get the death penalty.

The ruling is based on the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, who murdered his manager at a Popeye’s restaurant in Pensacola in 1998. Hurst’s jury voted 7-5 in favor of the death penalty and the judge imposed the sentence. The high court has ordered a new sentencing hearing for Hurst.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority decision, saying the practice violates 6th Amendment guarantees of a jury trial. Justice Samuel Alito dissented, saying Florida juries “play a critically important role" in the process.

Joining Alito in opposing the decision is Bill Eddins, State Attorney for the First Judicial Circuit.

“I’m continuing to review that [Hurst] case to determine whether or not, in view of this ruling, I can proceed on the cases that are pending in the 1st Circuit, pre-trial, with regard to the death penalty,” said Eddins.

Florida has about 400 prisoners on death row, second only to California. Unlike California, it conducts executions on a regular basis.

Eddins says if a trial has ended and the appeals process is not finished, based on the decision itself prosecutors can argue that while the procedure was wrong, the outcome was still the correct one and a different procedure wouldn’t have changed that.

“And we intend to do that, to try to uphold the death penalty in the cases that have been tried and are on appeal,” Eddins said. “The third category of cases where the death penalty has been imposed, the appeal and final, and the person is on death row– in my opinion, those cases are not affected.”

Of the 33 states with the death penalty, Alabama is the only jurisdiction where judges routinely override jury verdicts of life in prison without parole to impose capital punishment.

State Sen. That Altman, a Republican from Cape Canaveral, has filed a measure that would require a unanimous jury decision to hand down a death sentence. He’s filed similar legislation in the past.

Eddins says non-death penalty murder cases could also be affected in areas such as cost and plea bargains.

“There’s no incentive for the defendant to plead, so we don’t have the death penalty to take off the table, so to speak,” said Eddins. “So the number of trials that will be necessary will increase somewhat, because there’s no downside to the defendant for going to trial now.”

Many feel the decision is also a setback for capital punishment supporters. It comes at a time when the Supreme Court is hearing many such cases and could ultimately rule on whether the death penalty itself violates the Constitution.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.