Last week, in an 8-1 decision, the United States Supreme Court invalidated the State of Florida’s death penalty statute. In a January 12 opinion in Hurst v. Florida, the Court held that the law violated the Sixth Amendment by allowing the trial judge, rather than the jury, to make the ultimate decision on punishment. While capital juries in Florida did render an “advisory sentence,” this did not satisfy the requirement previously set forth by the Supreme Court in Ring v. Arizona that a jury must find the facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death. In Hurst’s case, the jury’s 7-5 vote for the death penalty was only a recommendation, and did not specify aggravating facts. The Supreme Court’s opinion, available here, was authored by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
While the Hurst opinion does not touch on the bigger question of the continued constitutionality of the death penalty in the United States, it marks another restriction imposed by the federal judiciary. This comes at a time when the number of death sentences and executions is on the decline nationally, and the number of abolitionist states continues to grow. In 2015, Nebraska became the nineteenth American state to abolish the death penalty, and governors have imposed moratoriums on executions in another four. Only six states actually carried out executions in 2015. As Harvard Law Professor James Ogletree writes in a recent article in Slate, in the United States “the death penalty is collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and cruelty.”
This post was contributed by Dr. Brian Farrell, who is a Lecturer in Law and Associate Director of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Iowa College of Law. Follow him on Twitter at @IowaLawFarrell.