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Other States Brace for Change Following Supreme Court Ruling

Capital punishment has a long and controversial history in America. Today, 31 states allow the death penalty, while just 19 do not. Each state, however, varies in how sentences are determined and carried out. Interestingly, the first recognized judicially ordered execution in America took place in 1608 in what is now modern day Virginia. Presently, Virginia holds the bittersweet distinction of having executed 1,388 convicted criminals – more than any other state, including those that have been more vocal in the capital punishment debate, like Texas.

In a recent Supreme Court decision, however, the country’s high court decided almost unanimously (8-1) that the way Florida sentences people to death violates the Constitution. Here some of the highlights of that decision.

Hurst v. Florida

In 1998, Timothy Lee Hurst was an employee of a Popeye’s restaurant in Pensacola, Florida, when he decided to rob his employer. During the robbery, he brutally murdered his manager, Cynthia Harrison, with a box cutter, leaving her bound and gagged in a freezer before making off with only about $1,000.

The jury convicted Hurst and issued its advisory statement suggesting the death penalty. However, this is where things get complicated with Florida’s death penalty sentencing.

How Florida decides death penalty cases

Florida’s unique capital punishment legislation leaves the ultimate decision to the judge, not the jury. Under FLA. STAT. §921.142(3), the jury issues an advisory sentence. The law states, “after hearing all the evidence, the jury shall deliberate and render an advisory sentence to the court…” This alone would not be a problem, but the statute continues in FLA. STAT. §921.142(4), stating that “notwithstanding the recommendation of a majority of the jury” the judge would make the ultimate determination.

Why the Supreme Court found Florida’s procedure unconstitutional

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishes the right to due process in criminal proceedings. American law relies on the common law principle that our courts are bound by prior rulings. So, with each ruling, our courts create a body of precedent that can become binding. In an earlier ruling by the Supreme Court in Ring v. Arizona, the Court found that it would be a violation of the Sixth Amendment for a state law to allow a judge sitting without a jury to decide whether to sentence someone to death.

Therefore, Florida’s sentencing law allowing a judge to disregard a jury’s recommendations arguably goes against the holding from Ring v. Arizona. Justice Sotomayor, writing the Opinion of the Court, explained that it is insufficient to simply let the jury make a recommendation.

Implications for other capital punishment states

Advocacy groups generally focus on the cruel and unusual punishment provision of the Eighth Amendment. Since it is a subjective standard (what is considered cruel to one is not the same to another), it has been difficult for opponents of capital punishment to make headway in some states. However, states like Virginia must now grapple with how their laws stack up against the Supreme Court’s most recent clarification.

Virginia criminal law provides that when deciding whether to sentence a person to death, such a sentence may not be imposed unless the court or jury shall . . .”recommend that the penalty of death be imposed.” This straightforward provision implies that either a judge or jury may make the ultimate sentencing decision. It is uncertain whether other states will revise their death penalty sentencing laws at this time.

The criminal defense lawyers of Simms Showers, LLP represent those accused of felonies and misdemeanors in Leesburg, Loudoun County and throughout Northern Virginia. If you are charged, call for your free consultation today.

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